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Helen Jeys, Deputy Headmistress at Manchester High School for Girls

Social media - friend or foe?

Let's not underestimate the importance children place on instant messages, profile updates and photo-sharing, says Helen Jeys

Posted by Dave Higgitt | April 16, 2015 | Teaching

From students accused of sharing test questions via Twitter and social media platforms being used as providing opportunities to bully and to groom unsuspecting young people to the seeming obsession with updating profiles, sharing inappropriate images and responding to the endless streams of messages, we could fairly see social media as a foe. A quick search of the internet will certainly provide you with its negative face.

In an Ofcom report published in October 2014, the statistics presented to us are startling. Children aged 12-15 are now spending more time going online in a typical week (17.2 hours on average) than watching television. One in three children aged between 5 and 15 now have their own tablet computer and most children between the ages of 12 and 15 have three or more devices of their own. Furthermore, keeping up with the range of social media platforms available to young people is a job in itself. Despite this, Facebook remains the most used social media site. However, one third of 12-15 year olds now use Instagram, with a significant minority using other photo or video-messaging sites or apps such as Snapchat.

Despite the negative press social media often receives, it is clear that this trend will continue to grow and we are going to have to acknowledge that this form of communication is exceptionally significant to young people. As much as we need to warn children and their parents of the dangers connected with it, we simply cannot ignore it.

A year-nine girl made this very clear to me when she commented that it just did not matter what anyone told her and her peers about the dangers of engaging in social media, we could not underestimate or understand the importance she and her friends put on gaining ‘likes’ on pictures and photographs they posted on Instagram.

I will say more about e-safety in a future article, but it is clear that we must not treat social media as a monster we can choose to ignore. Indeed, it can be and is a friend to both young people and to us, as teachers, if we use it responsibly. The ability to interact with friends across the globe in an instant and varied way is a powerful tool for young people and sharing photographs to groups is a fun and fundamental part of their lives. Yes, we need to encourage young people not to allow the use of social media to inhibit social skills, but it is a fact of life and one that we ignore at the risk of alienating those we teach.

Furthermore, even though many teachers are reluctant to use social media with their students, there are some innovative ideas which may help engage young people more fully in the process of learning. Using carefully set-up, private Instagram accounts to showcase work, encouraging students to blog their thoughts while on a trip or using Edmodo to help create a social, digital classroom –the opportunities are endless. Perhaps, therefore, Mark Zuckerberg was right when he said: “In terms of doing work and in terms of learning and evolving as a person, you just grow more when you get more people's perspectives.”

Social media is also the friend of the teacher. There are some amazing resources on various blogs and conversations via Twitter which enable teachers to share ideas and discuss issues important to all of us who love our profession. From kevenbartle’s blog, @LeadingLearner to #ASE chat, a weekly online science education discussion group conducted via Twitter on Monday evenings, we can learn much about our career and encourage those in our staffrooms to engage in ongoing professional development, albeit in chunks of 140 characters.

Helen Jeys is Deputy Headmistress at Manchester High School for Girls

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