In 2002, when I was at school, every student was tasked to bounce back home at the end of the week with a slightly crumpled newsletter that told our parents what has happened that week at school. In 2019, there’s an app for that. Parents now receive school information on demand, instantly and directly onto their phones. The phrases “How can we Instagram this” or “What hashtag should we use?” is commonplace when organising school events, and with good reason. We live in a nation where 90% of adults own a smartphone, with the favoured apps being YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Schools are harnessing these powerful platforms to show their communities the amazing education that is happening every day.
Our school communities are fortunate enough to be part of a forward-thinking nation where the positive influence of social media platforms has been recognised as powerful communication tools. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum actively uses social media to communicate regularly with his people. His Highness also launched the Arab Social Media Award in 2014 in order to encourage positive digital communication and best practice for the good of the nation.
Growing up, children copy behaviours in order to integrate themselves into our societies. The way we communicate in the digital world is an ever increasing and important part of that. By the time secondary school students reach 15, 74% of them have an active social media account and 83% of them own a smartphone. By then, their social role models have shifted from their parents to their peers. They become the moderators of their own digital world. Learning how to communicate with each other in that digital world has now become an essential survival skill, one which they must harness before stepping onto the world stage by themselves.
It is curious that when schools teach students about the digital world, we often revert back to a message and delivery system that originated in the early 2000’s, when MySpace still existed, instead of harnessing the key 21st Century skills required to communicate in today’s environment. It is common for teachers to deliver a set of rules to students as the main part of a citizenship lesson, with the default phrase of “if you are feeling bullied, tell a responsible adult”. The students then take down notes on paper and the lesson ends without the opportunity to apply any new digital citizen skills on a real social media platform.
Adults feel safer knowing they have imparted the information, with the best intention of guiding them towards meaningful relationships with their peer groups so that they do not feel the loneliness or isolation that is becoming ever more common in teenagers across the world. The problem with this method of delivery is that it may not be particularly effective at achieving its goal of creating confident and empowered digital citizens.
If 90% of adult residents in the UAE own a smartphone and communicate with their online communities on average of 6.5 hours a day, this is showing our students from a very young age that a significant portion of their own lives will be online. This is a strong indication that the previous 19 years of schools telling their students to “put down their phones and talk to a real person” has not only been of limited effect, it is also highlighting our own hypocrisy by continuing to enforce this on our students.
There is also a real fear of our children growing up to be impatient, with superficial friendships and feelings of anxiety because of their interactions within their digital environment. “Tell me if there is anyone bullying you” is exceptionally good advice, but it should not be the only advice to give to a growing young adult. As Spiderman’s Uncle Ben famously told him: “With great power, comes great responsibility”. We give so much power to children every time we hand them a device. More often than not, that power comes with little prior practice with how to maintain a healthy digital relationship with different people. It seems easier and safer to remove the responsibility from the student and place it squarely back with the “responsible adult” who will “deal” with the bully. If the adult’s instinct is to remove their child from their device completely, the child may end up feeling like they would rather suffer in silence than be taken away from how they communicate with their actual friends. It is like not letting your child talk to any friends at all, because a group of their peers are teasing them in the playground.
Just as great teaching is amplified by digital tools, great communication skills can be amplified by social media. Therefore, let’s use great teaching practice in our citizenship lessons to show students how to create a balance between the real and digital worlds, by using an agreed upon framework, instead of enforced “adult rules”. Let’s model and monitor supportive and collaborative online communication with students in a safe digital environment before they reach 15 and have to decide how to act and react to the digital world they find themselves in. Most importantly, let’s make sure that our students go into their future environments with the mindset and coping mechanisms necessary to create long lasting and meaningful relationships. It will take patience for a whole school to build the foundations of a strong and healthy digital environment, with time invested from all stakeholders to be the role models and guides for their children. However, this patience will be rewarded by their students maturing into responsible digital citizens accomplished in the four C’s of Communication, Collaboration, Creativity and Critical Thinking. This cannot be done by one isolated teacher in one or two short lessons. It takes the whole village to raise these children to become truly confident and responsible 21st Century citizens, in the physical and digital world.