Social media has been established for less than a decade yet it now plays a central role in the everyday lives of millions of people in the UK, with children forming a significant part of the market audience. With over a third of 9-12 year olds believed to own Facebook accounts (despite the self-imposed minimum age limit of 13) and a tidal wave of anecdotal stories in the media focusing on the impact of so-called cyber-bullying, the issue of whether schools should teach social media has never been more relevant.
Social Media: a Core Skill?
In support of schools teaching social media it can be argued that, for modern-day children, social networking is as fundamental a part of daily life as reading, writing or playing sport. This may seem an alien concept to those of us old enough to recall a childhood devoid of the internet, iPads and smartphones; indeed, many would argue that if the older generation survived unscathed without access to this gadgetry then the youth of today need not be taught how to use social media.
Such an argument is, however, without substance. Like it or not, social networking is an integral part of life for a large majority of children and teenagers and it is not about to magically disappear overnight because some older commentators are reticent about its worth. As with learning to read, write and calculate, social media skills can be taught in such a way to exploit the benefits without the risks associated with the negatives. Harnessing its power and value can be more effectively achieved with an educator actively teaching and guiding learners than if children are simply left to develop their own pathway in an unstructured approach in which the dangers are stumbled across by accident or inquisition.
A Clear and Present Danger
Furthermore, with many high profile stories persisting in the media, social networking presents a clear and present danger to the youth of today. Grooming, cyber-bullying and identify theft are, we are led to believe, rife. It is, therefore, no surprise that schools across the UK marked national e-safety day in February with many taking advantage of training and awareness sessions for parents and pupils led by specialist units established within local authorities.
Research in the US has demonstrated that the human brain does not achieve full cognitive abilities until between the ages of 21 and 24 which, when combined with the breakdown of family life and the increasing isolation of children, means that youngsters are unable to deal with bullying that is rooted in social media. The argument, therefore, that schools should take a lead in empowering students to resist personal harassment on a cyber-scale is a powerful one. Not only can learners be taught the etiquette of social media (knowing, for example, how to set the highest levels of privacy on Facebook and Twitter accounts) but they can also be provided with an escape route if bullying becomes intense or destructive.
A Parental Responsibility
On the other hand, some would argue that social media has, at least at present, little connection with the school curriculum. With the vast proportion of social media currently devoted to maintaining social lives beyond the school day, and with a cohesive link with advancing learners academically yet to be fully developed, it could be argued that its relevance to the curriculum is minimal. Therefore it is the primary responsibility of parents, who ultimately empower their children to become social media savvy by providing them with smartphones and computers, to take responsibility. Schools, with their crowded curriculum and test-based learning, can ill-afford to devote large amounts of time to teaching social media skills.
Furthermore, it could be argued that if schools are perceived by students to be promoting social media then it legitimises their use of it, both the positive and negative aspects. With social media a relatively new technological development, and an increasingly-proven link between social networking and bullying, the jury is still out on its long-term impact on young minds and until that has been established, schools should not be seen to be supporting students in this area.
Social Media: Here to Stay
A key point to remember is that while children may appear to be at ease with social media and proficient in its use at an early stage, it should not be assumed that they know how to behave responsibly in a digital world. Whether the argument that school should teach social media skills is valid or not, it cannot be denied that social networking is here for the long-term and if students are to benefit from its existence, then teaching our children to stay safe is a moral responsibility in a world that is increasingly changing.