Social Media and Our Young Learners: An Article Response

The Source of Urgency

If you have not read this article from The Atlantic (September 2017 Issue), please take a moment to check it out. The article, written by Jean M. Twenge, contains incredible research and interpretation of information. The blog post you are reading now contains my own thoughts as well as the thoughts of a mentor.
I love and fully recognize the irony of reading the post that introduced me to the article while on my phone…and staying up late to respond to it on that same device. I began to share my thoughts as a comment to Will Richardson's post on the Change.School community (yes, even more irony). But as I think about the content presented in the Atlantic article and the likely response my school community, I am compelled to share my thoughts with a larger audience. I am passionate about the effects of social media on our young students for one very poignant reason: I love the kids who walk through our hallways as I do my own children. Further, I agree that they constantly battle unhappiness because of the social pressures thrown at them (and embraced by them) every day.

A Little Background

My school facilitates a 1:1 (iPad) school technology program, and has done so for a number of years. We were one of the first private schools in the city of Houston to adopt this pedagogical shift comprehensively beginning in 5th grade about five years ago. Our students have embraced the iPad as an essential element to support learning and teachers have learned to let go of traditional, static learning tools (like textbooks) to focus on the immeasurable volume of information via online research. We are discovering better ways to inspire learning every year; I appreciate our ability to be nimble in pedagogy and curriculum while continuing to find success in developing young minds. Just search "prepare the child for the path" and see the inspirational messaging for yourself.
Technology should never dictate the breadth or depth of the learning that goes on in the classroom; that exploration depends on the learner and those that facilitate learning (more on this idea later). But the devices in the hands of our students should serve as a means to make learning visible through demonstrative evidence of growth. Never is this device intended to be a "consumption only" tool. We want to teach students to own their learning and therefore be in control of the various tools at their disposal. But much like Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side despite his training in and knowledge of the light side of the force, power and authority over others can be a unavoidable temptation. We cannot guide the hands of our students (nor should we). And that brings us back to Twenge's article.

Tell Me You Got the Plates on that Truck…

Allow me to begin with a clarifying statement: I agree with every piece of evidence Twenge presents. Social media has the potential to serve as the greatest threat to adolescents, more so than any other in our modern history. But in all the evidence she presents, I'm left with the pressing question: Why is this continuing to happen? Her research goes back 25 years; why have we not stepped on the brakes? It is clear that the greater we (that is, every single adult making an impact on an adolescent) never developed the skills to teach our kids how to navigate social media, and specifically through the comments of others. It seems that, according to Twenge, the "sticks and stones" adage exists with reckless abandon in social media outlets and can end with depression and (God forbid) suicide. In my own school, there are a small group of families that have serious concerns about the amount of technology to which our academic program exposes students on a daily basis. They feel that children need to learn traditional, pre-tech methods of learning. While I address this specific concern in the above paragraph, I worry that Twenge's article creates even more angst to the danger of any screen time, even the positive model we emphasize.

Does Anybody Have a Map?

The title of this section refers to a song from the Broadway show destroying the competition these days, Dear Evan Hanson. I love the music written for this show; however, the content is a bit hard to swallow. This musical describes how a teenager dealing with depression and being a social outcast considers suicide to solve his anonymity. "13 Reasons" is a made-for-Netflix production with revenge suicide as its central plot line, presented as the ultimate way to get back at all those so-called "friends" who insulted, raped, and dismissed a young girl. These high-traffic shows sensationalize one way to respond to the the very emotional roller coaster our students are experiencing. These example have a significantly louder voice than, say, mom and dad (or teacher). So my question is this: How has a young person's ability to own their online narrative been marginalized, instead deferring them to the extreme alternatives just mentioned? As Will states in a response to my comment: "This [need to educate kids on how to use devices properly] is a HUGE part of any technology roll out in schools, but one that is hardly mentioned amidst discussions around bandwidth, filtering, appropriate use, and safety." At this point in time, all I have seen is a budding awareness of the issue. Can we move beyond awareness?

Finding Center Stage

Will goes on to say: "The dissonance for us is that we [adults] have some context for "how it used to be." Kids don't. This is what life looks like now. Our job is to help them understand that people's lives aren't just the highlight reels they post online, and find a healthy balance that many of them don't even know they're missing." This gem of an observation identifies the crux: kids live in this world of full-time connectivity since the day they were born (e.g., using Instagram in a delivery room, or at least responding to a post of that kind). From the cheap seats, the simple answer is "less screen time." After all, if we prevent our kids from being exposed to social media, we solve the problem, right? The truth is, any screen time can lead to misguided decisions that haunt forever. I'll use a Brené Brown reference here: when we (or our students) are in "the arena," our devices are a permanent tool/weapon available to us, for better or for worse. Wielding such a tool with confidence requires training and MODELING. I, for one, have a long way to go in that second category. But, as the saying goes, it's never the tool that acts…action always remains in the hands of the one who wields it. Parents, teachers, and anyone a young person admires must realize how they are being observed in person (think of the parent you see at the pool who is constantly distracted by the number of "likes" on their Facebook post) and followed virtually (when you "friend" your child, or your friend's child, you are sharing everything with them that you post online).

it's never the tool that acts…action always remains in the hands of the one who wields it

Ultimately, there must be an acknowledgement by schools and parents of the way students manipulate and are manipulated by their online interactions. Only through committed partnership for rehabilitation (for lack of a better word) can we help steer this conversation back towards the infinite value of the tool rather than it being the source of "unhappiness."

Making Failure a Priority

This image appeared on my LinkedIn feed yesterday, sparking thoughts and reflection about why the middle school years are so crucial. Tweenagers, children between the ages of 10 and 15, go through a roller coaster of changes. They discover independence and passion for new ideas and interests, particularly during the school day. As they discover opportunities to make decisions sans parent influence, tweenagers find their path more open and free as their capabilities have increased. However, this freedom comes with risk attached. In discovering passions, the inevitability of failure surfaces. For students at my school, a fear of failure predicates all decisions. Quite often, they test the waters only to back off after a mistake or an undesirable result develops. As you can see from the examples below, it’s that “comfort zone” of effort that we need to expunge.

“My parents will kill me if I don’t make an A.”
Students love the easy ‘A.’ The gratification of seeing a good grade on a test or report card starts early and carries forward throughout our adult life. But anyone can take the easy road to make the grade; the more memorable academic work arrives when taking the road less traveled. However, students are hesitant to take risks on a project or paper because the uncharted path, though more interesting and dynamic, may not provide an easy avenue to earning high marks. Pursuing a unique and creative path takes effort and iteration which means patience in academic effort. Teachers are welcoming of this path; looking at a new topic or seeing a student take a new angle with a project is energizing to a classroom. We as educators need to remain vocal in our support of these trailblazers so that they can see the value of the road less traveled.

“We lost the game. We suck.”
When it comes to sports, middle school students are diving into a whole new world. No matter the game, the average tweenager is only developing the concept of being a “cog in the wheel.” After so many years of being in the spotlight, especially in today’s ribbon-happy athletic environment, being a piece to the puzzle versus the solution is humbling at best. Some young athletes reach puberty early, giving them the physical edge; this only adds to the disillusion of the rest of the pack as they watch their classmate get the glory.

Second, so many times in my coaching career I have heard the opinion of “we suck” based on the fact that the team lost the game yesterday. It’s hard for a young person to see the baby steps of progress that it takes to become a strong, successful team. As I speak to students after a game, the response to “how did the game go?” is always black and white. Win or loss. So my second question is always, “How did YOU do?” The response to this question is interesting – after debriefing personal performance, students are very quick to celebrate the success of a teammate. Perhaps the question triggers that “cog and wheel” perspective in the tweenage brain. But coaches and parents alike can help a student overcome that all-or-nothing response by asking about the space between.

Power in Failing
As I return to the image that sparked this post, let’s look at the key pieces to the acronym shown in the picture:

F.A.I.L.

  • F: First – In order to fail, you have to try (and try again). Ramana Maharshi, sage thinker who devoted his life to exploring self-inquiry, is quoted saying, “No one succeeds without effort…Those who succeed owe their success to perseverance.” We must teach young people to take that first leap of faith, and to be comfortable with the outcome, whatever it may be.
  • A: Attempt – These days a young person believes that attempt = successful completion. I host an after school club every other week when students come to play chess and other types of board games. I find it interesting that, even in a gaming situation, students won’t make the attempt against an opponent they know is good (or better than they are) at a game. For instance, Alex is a chess master, and students are afraid to play him. With this decision, there isn’t a way to improve. We must educate tweenagers to re-engineer their understanding of an attempt to one of trial and error.
  • L: Learning – Skill development is the very essence of forming the teenage mind. To me, the definition of learning finds its foundation in skill development. To put it another way, failure is a part of developing skills. Finding out what doesn’t work provides a wealth of understanding for a young person. Failure is a life experience that helps, not only in the current effort, but in all those efforts to come.

Take a moment to reflect on how you teach failure in your classroom. It may be the most important lesson you can provide a young person.

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