Social Networking—Why Are We Afraid?

5/1/2008 5:00:00 AM

from Educators' eZine

Cyberbullying, online predators, and other Internet-related dangers make headlines almost daily. Fear of what lies beyond that glowing screen at which our kids so love to stare dominates the current perception of what the Internet has become. In this climate of perceived threat, schools do what we all do with that of which we are afraid. We avoid the threat and try to forget it's out there.

Social Networking is the current scary word. By definition social networking encompasses virtual places and tools such as Facebook, MySpace, Club Penguin, and Second Life, as well as the traditional instant messengers our students use. Our studens share their lives online using these tools as well as the text messaging built into their phones—which have morphed into video cameras, web browsers, and instant messengers.

But we adults are afraid. This is not the way we grew up. We had our group of friends, our own little group. Now, the groups to which today's young people belong are hundreds and even thousands strong. Their "friends" lists go on for pages, many of them hundreds or thousands of physical miles away. This is so far from the way we communicated and learned about each other, that we cannot understand it. So we do what most people do with things they do not understand. We ignore it. If it intrudes on the way we do things, we find ways to block it.

Eighty-one percent of kids have visited a social networking site such as MySpace or Facebook. Yet more than 50% of schools block social networking altogether and over 80% block instant messaging and chatting services. These statistics tell us that our students are accessing these types of services regardless of our efforts to block them.

Although the media coverage would make us think the numbers are higher, "Creating and Connecting", a recent report by the National School Boards Association, states that only .08% of students – that's eight of ten thousand say—that they have met an online contact in person without parental consent. That's quite a bit fewer than the media would have us believe.

There are statistics that justify some fear. More than 80 percent of children using e-mail receive inappropriate messages, and 47 percent receive pornographic spam on a daily basis. Further, one in five children (21 percent) open and view spam e-mail. About 1 in 3 teens that use the Internet claim they have been bullied online in one way or another.

With these statistics, why would anyone argue against blocking these services? Because most of the bad stuff is happening outside of school, where we cannot block it. Social networking is a part of students' lives. We cannot teach kids to use any of these tools responsibly if we block them. We cannot begin to understand them if our educators are blocked from exploring these tools.

Here's a thought that reveals how out-of-touch schools are. This year many young people watched the presidential candidates debate, but they did so online rather than on a television screen. Educators block streaming video from being viewed in school because of fear. Yet our high school seniors will vote in the very next election.

With over 80 million users on MySpace alone, social networking is not going away. And that National School Boards Association report said that 50% of students using these services are specifically talking about schoolwork using these social networking tools.

What? Students are talking about schoolwork? Yes. Just as we used the phone (despite our parents demands to hang up!) students today are using social networks. They are asking each other questions and discussing homework besides planning to go out. This is their way to communicate and as much as we have difficulty understanding it, it is 24/7 and schools can take some advantage of that.

Although most of us have never heard of them, here are examples of excellent projects done in small pockets using social networking tools.

All contain great examples of how creative teachers and students can learn how to learn through social networking in safe and productive ways.

Even more recently, a group of students has created their own blog commenting on education today. Students 2.0 is an excellent example of students using social networking in responsible ways to express themselves, create content and conversation, and take it way beyond the walls of one classroom, school, state or country using social networking.

As educational leaders, our sole responsibility is to do the best we can to create learners. In order to do that we must learn what tools our students are using. They are learning without us, often without guidance, using tools we not only don't understand, but also often block. If we want them to learn in an environment where they can receive guidance, make mistakes safely, and be prepared to learn long after they leave us, we need to be exploring the tools they will use to communicate.

Email: Sandy Wagner

"Creating & Connecting: Research and Guidelines on Online Social and Educational Networking", National School Boards Association, July 2007

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