Major support for MindShift comes from
Outschool Logo

Should Schools Teach Social Media Skills?

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 9 years old.


By Aarti Shahani

Taking selfies at funerals. Tagging pictures of teens drinking alcohol at parties. Kids (and adults for that matter) post a lot of silly stuff online -- and although most of it is chatter, some of what might seem harmless leads to tragic consequences. But is it the job of schools to teach kids the dos and don'ts of social media?

At Lincoln High School in San Francisco's Sunset district, counselor Ian Enriquez teaches students three very big words: "Disinhibition, reputation, anonymity."

Enriquez is using a curriculum created by the non-profit Common Sense Media, a media watchdog group for parents that also offers resources for teachers. Schools in nearby Santa Clara county have adopted this curriculum into a semester-long course for all middle and high school students. Enriquez, who's doing just a one-day workshop, jokes that despite the title, “It’s not common sense.”

"You want the kids in the homerooms to start thinking about what it means to be disinhibited," he says. Disinhibition, for those who might not know, means acting impulsively, without showing due restraint, in a way that’s aggressive or plays up another personality trait. The teenagers get it right away.


“Would you say that your friends act differently online than they do in person?” Enriquez asks.

“Yeah, and they look different!" responds sophomore Megan McKay.

Like many schools throughout the country, Bay Area schools hold workshops on cyberbullying, but don’t have uniform practices for teaching social media etiquette beyond that. While teachers use platforms like Facebook as a tool to engage students in learning, ongoing instruction on digital citizenship itself is the exception, not the rule.

Enriquez, who counsels students on health, racism, homophobia, and other topics that aren’t purely academic, believes the district should institute a mandatory social media curriculum. Enriquez says cyberbullying and viral rumors have been a problem ever since kids posted on that once-popular site MySpace. “When I started at this high school 10 years ago, almost every school fight I was aware of occurred because of something that happened in the virtual world.”


Dennis Kelly, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, the local teachers union, says teachers are already drowning in work -- especially now with Common Core. While social media is important, Kelly says, so are other things. “All students should learn to swim, but should it be school’s responsibility to teach them swimming?”

Back in the 1980s and '90s, schools introduced sex education into the classroom, in response to the AIDS epidemic. But social media is not a scientific, biological reality -- it's a business, and Kelly says it's not the job of public schools to dedicate scarce teaching resources, especially when that business might not be here for long. “It would be very difficult for schools trying to keep up with Instagram, Facebook, all of the apps that exist out there that are essentially market driven.”

But others believe that's not necessarily the case. Michelle Finneran Dennedy, the Chief Privacy Officer at McAfee, an Internet security company, says that while apps come and go, social media is here to stay.

"We want PTAs to own this. We would love to see the unions start to train teachers on this," she says.

Dennedy, who teaches social media etiquette through McAfee's program to students around the world, says even when kids love to share, they don't want a permanent digital trail of every phase of their private life. They want to know "you're allowed to be that rough-and-tumble girl that turns into a prom queen. And I think it's important for us, as the technical world in particular, to allow them to have that human exploration without exploiting it."

As to the argument that Facebook restricts its platform to kids at least 13 years old and has resources for educators (as do Instagram and Twitter), Dennedy points out younger kids slip in anyway, and the educators who get involved are a self-selecting few. She says schools can play a critical role in teaching online etiquette to students, and can give feedback to companies that are building this new virtual reality.

"I don't think it's easy," she says. "I feel for educators, and I do think it's a public-private partnership."


The students at Lincoln High School don't have a definitive take. Enriquez has them debate a hypothetical situation: Say Matt's parents are fighting and he stays over his buddy Jeff's house. Jeff gets tired of hosting him, so he Tweets or posts on Facebook: “Someone else take Matt? His parents are fighting."

Junior Eric Lamp says that violates trust. “I would get rid of the post. I don't want people to get hurt,” he says.

But if you're Matt, you can't get rid of the post. Jeff, the publisher, has to do it.

How does that make Lamp feel? He shrugs his shoulders. “I feel kind of helpless. You have no power over your confidential information."

But Lamp says he's not sure it's serious enough to get a teacher involved.

Parents, teachers, students, weigh in: Should schools be responsible for teaching dos and don'ts of social media? Take our poll at KQED’s education blog:

Listen to the full California Report story here: