Being a teacher has always been a tough job. Taking on the role means accepting responsibility for the potential of young people and embracing the many, various challenges on the path to their future. Time evolves the medium of these challenges, but not the content. The teachers of today still face the issues of bullying and fighting against a tide of inattention in much the same way as their predecessors. In 2017, however, teachers are working against smartphones and the digital world rather than pieces of paper and fisticuffs.
Social media is proving to be one of the areas that causes the most disruption for teachers trying to educate their pupils today. Nominet’s recent research into the impact of social media and the use of smartphones in the classroom found that secondary school teachers lose an average of 17 minutes teaching time every day to disruptions stemming from these – that’s over 11 days each year. This is not only short-changing our kids but each school’s potential too.
The difficulty in handling this growing problem is that the students of today have grown up within a digital world and largely rely on social media to operate within it. Social media platforms offer them a place to express themselves and discover who they are and who they want to be through online exploration and engagement.
The internet also supports their learning. Recent Barnardo’s research found that 75% of 13-15 year olds use the net to help with homework – more than the previous generation. Unfortunately, the study also found that 25% of them had used social media to communicate with a stranger.
Sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram struggle to keep pace with the negative aspects that result from use of their platforms: cyberbullying, online abuse, and the sharing of sexually explicit content. Not only are these issues damaging online for the youngsters, they also leak out from the digital world into the real one. They form the foundation of many of the problems teachers are expected to handle in the classroom.
Another alarming by-product of social media use is the negative way in which it impacts mental health. The NSPCC has established links between social media use and an increase in the likelihood of issues such as anxiety and depression despite the apparent lifeline it offers to adolescents. Our own research concurred, reporting that 57% of all teachers surveyed think social media has negatively affected their students’ mental health. This has serious consequences at a pivotal time in their lives: half of teachers believe social media contributes to their pupils achieving lower grades than their potential. These are just two good reasons why almost three-quarters (72%) of teachers think smartphones should be banned from the classroom completely.
For all the negative associations and issues, social media is here to stay. Young people know no other realm for communication and sharing. They will always find a way of using the online tools, even if schools try to control it. A case in point comes from one of England’s leading independent schools that admitted to monitoring its students’ comments on social media to check for criticism of the school, prompting protests from the students themselves.
To move forward, we need to consider how we make the social media impact positive as far as possible in the school environment. This starts with offering teachers training and support to ensure they feel confident to educate their pupils on social media issues. Teachers must be armed with coping strategies for cyber bullying and impress upon their students the serious consequences of creating or sharing explicit content. We know this is an area that needs work as our research found that almost a quarter of teachers believe they lack the right skills to cope. This is despite 17% of teachers saying they’d experienced pupils sharing explicit or pornographic content in class. In future, schools might need to invest in training or consider hiring qualified staff to manage the challenges associated with social media use and abuse both in and out the classroom.
Coping with existing issues is the first step; the next is knowing how to harness social media for good in a school context. Schools are increasingly using sharing platforms to broadcast updates to parents on everything from school trips to unplanned closures. Within reason, there could also be positive use of platforms in the classroom, with simple steps such as incorporating sites like Facebook into lesson plans. This is great for closed group class projects and sharing relevant research and ideas. There is also evidence, from a study at the University of Kansas, that students learnt a scientific process better than their peers when their learning was supported by social media. That said, teachers must bear in mind the official age restrictions for the social media platforms (13 for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter), even if their students likely don’t.
To support these efforts at school, there needs to be an active interest from Mum and Dad at home too. We found that 84% of the teachers believe they need the help of parents to ensure children understand the risks they take by living online. The best results in this endeavour will come from a collaborative effort; parents, teachers and friends working together to keep our children safe and, hopefully, reduce the negative impact of social media in the classroom.
The challenges of our digital age should be viewed as opportunities and not problems. Social media could become a tool for transformation in the learning environment if everyone works together, upskilling as necessary and investing their efforts in supporting the young people trying to find their way across sharing platforms as they come of age. This is the future generation of leaders and we owe them every chance to make the digital world one which they can navigate safely and thrive within.
For more information on Nominet’s teacher research please visit our website.
Russell Haworth, CEO of Nominet
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