A teen life coach shares her insights into how teachers and parents can protect kids without cutting them off from their friends.
By Sheri Gazitt
The issue of student safety is top-of-mind for schools across the country right now, and keeping kids safe online should definitely be a part of that conversation. Cyber-bullying affects more than 1 in 3 young people. At the same time, 22% of teenage girls admit to posting inappropriate photos or videos online via social media platforms like Snapchat or Instagram. To address the issues behind internet safety in schools, we first have to think about why students use technology the way they do.
Why Are Kids Online?
A lot of tweens and teens are hopping onto social media and the internet starting at around sixth-grade, or age 13. They’re very trusting and not afraid to put out information that they think they’re only sharing with their close friends. Typically, they don’t understand the implication of posting online and giving the entire world access to what they post. Once something is posted online, it’s out in the world forever.
As a teen life coach, I hear a lot of stories about kids wanting to connect on the internet. This may be the #1 reason they use it: to communicate. In class, teachers can use Skype to connect with students about the world, but there are dangers when teens are left to the internet on their own accord. A lot of their time on Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook is spent adding people as friends who they don’t know in real life. This is an attempt to create a bigger social circle and to connect with people around the world. Unfortunately, this is also why inappropriate photos are an issue: teens feel like sharing photos is a way to connect with other people, even though it tends to have unhealthy side effects on their self-esteem.
This type of online connection is not the kind we want to encourage in young students. Kids are still learning how to interact with each other, but yet, they’re posting things that they don’t realize are going to hurt people’s feelings. Or, even worse, they intentionally post in a mean way but don’t see the emotional reactions on the other end. Cyberbullies don’t get the kind of feedback that they would in real life. Instead, they’re saying these things behind a screen, without any human interaction.
Conversation Beats Isolation
Faced with the negative things that can happen online, it’s tempting for schools to ban smartphones or social media, and many have tried. But those are important ways that teens communicate today, and taking them away can isolate a child. Instead, teachers need to be talking to students of every age about online safety. We need to balance this conversation by outlining how the internet isn’t intended to be a bad thing, and that it’s not bad for students to be using it. The reality is, they’re going to use it, no matter what schools do to try and control it.
Instead, we can approach the discussion by talking about the importance of having students make their own decisions. We can provide them with the tools to take control over their own social media. We can create an outline about what they should and should not post, and give reasons why. It helps to start with simple guidelines, like not sharing where they hang out all the time or pictures of what school they go to.
It’s also important for educators to stay in contact with parents to discuss students’ everyday achievements as well as red-flag behaviors, such as signs of loneliness linked to cyberbullying. With apps like Bloomz, teachers can maintain an open conversation with parents and, should any of these signs appear, instantly send a message to a parent to ask them about their child and what might be going on in their home life.
Ask Open-ended Questions
I’ve noticed the first conversations about online safety happening around 3rd grade. Educators can keep the conversation going by asking children open-ended questions such as:
- What are your expectations with technology at home and at school?
- What do you want from social media?
- Why are you on it?
- What are the good things that happen when you’re on Snapchat or on Instagram?
Asking these questions opens the door for what children will inevitably run into online. Ultimately, kids need a healthy balance between real-world and virtual communication. We should encourage kids to think about how much time they’re spending looking at the screen, and to consider what they could be doing instead. I challenge every educator to start with these questions and keep the conversation going.
Sheri Gazitt is a teen life coach at Teen Wise in Seattle, Wash.