Used with permission from the Magnussen family.

Cyberbullying. Stalking. Pedophilia. Narcissism. Screen time. These are the headlines that grab the most attention around the topic of students using social media.  These articles and reports strike fear into parents and schools to the point that has resulted in the banning of social media.  By banning, we put our heads in the sand and cross our fingers that somehow, in some way, students will avoid using social media or somehow miraculously figure out how to use it in a positive manner.  When we do this, what actually ends up happening is we get students sneaking around using social media tools and teaching themselves what is and what is not appropriate.  Gordon Neufeld, author of Hold on to Your Kids,  speaks of the problems with this on a broader level as peers then attach to each other without adults (teacher, family) and teach themselves which behaviours are acceptable.  In order for adults to guide and be the teachers of any skill, we need to be aware and we need to be involved.

As adults, we need to be the teachers.  We need to be the models.  Much like with other skills and behaviours. We need to focus on the relationships we have with our students/children and model and teach digital citizenship.

At our school we have students up to the age of 12.  In a very informal survey I did last year, I found that almost 75% of our students in grade 5 and 6 were using some form of social media (predominantly Instagram and Facebook) and many of them were using it with very limited support from adults.  This is not a criticism of parents nor is it a criticism of schools and teachers; we are all taking this new journey together and as we grow with the tools, we start to see the issues that arise.  Because of this, I have taught mini-units of social media with our 5′s and 6′s with the focus on digital footprint and online communication (as well as what to do when a child experiences negative behaviour online).  We speak of BOTH the negatives (ex. the importance of knowing how to take a screenshot on any device as well as the impact of this) and the positives (ex. the positive impact a child can have on others through supporting and sharing online).  My goal with these sessions is not to tell students to connect online but rather to teach the impact of posting online as well as the skills of how to communicate and interact online. In addition to these sessions, as more students and classes begin blogging and connecting for educational purposes, it also provides us with key opportunities to teach digital citizenship.

One thing that I have been thinking about lately is the idea that my friend, George Couros, recently mentioned to me: Digital Leadership.  Much like leadership offline, students and adults can LEAD others in how they interact and treat each other online.  When we put our heads in the sand and ban social media, we miss a huge opportunity to showcase and tap intp digital leadership and model a positive online presence.

In a recent session I did with the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils on schools using social media to enhance parent engagement, a question was asked about the fear around using Facebook in schools (click here to access the archive of the session).  My response was that although I understand the fears involved with posting online, I believe that it is our job as adults in 2013 to MODEL appropriate and positive use of social media.  For example, like other schools in BC, we have fairly strict protection of privacy laws (FIPPA) so we need to have specific consent of parents in order to share photos (especially when stored online outside of Canada).  This consent is often beyond that of a 12 year old’s understanding… so in addition to the consent that is required by an adult, I ask the students before a post a photo of them.  I want them to learn that it is not appropriate to post any photos of friends or peers without them knowing.  Another area that I also am trying to model with students is how and when to put the devices away and self-regulate in a world in which there is always someone online that wants to engage.  Students know I use social media and they also see me using technology in a very purposeful manner (see Why I Took Facebook and Twitter Off My Phone).  By sharing the ways we use social media and including students in this discussion, we schools can be digital leaders and open the doors to some deeper learning experience on how to better navigate this new(ish) world of social media together.

Not only is it important for schools to model digital leadership and citizenship. it is aslo important to share the stories of other digital leaders (particularly youth) who are using social media to make a positive difference to others.  Many of you know the relationship that I had with the family of  a young girl, Lilee-Jean Putt, whom we lost recently to cancer at the age of two. Because of my online connection to LJ’s mother and father, I came across the Facebook page of a 17 year old girl, Angel Magnussen, who has made it her life purpose to help sick children in a variety of ways. Angel is not your typical 17 year old.  She is a 17 year old who is #proudtohaveDownsSyndrome (from her Twitter bio) and a passionate girl who has started her own non-profit business “Hugginz By Angel”.  This business raises money for BC Children’s Hospital in a variety of ways but most importantly, by selling (well, mostly raising money and donating) beautiful blankets Angel makes to wrap around as many sick children in need an “Angel Hug”.  From her Facebook page:

I have just started up my own Non Profit Fundraising Business “Hugginz By Angel”. I make and sell specially designed cute cuddly hospital pajamas for kids and teens and blankets young children and babies. I knit Love Hats for sick kids too. I want to make sure that every sick child is wrapped up in a warm hug. Sales of Hugginz benefit Variety the children’s charity. Please check out my Hugginz By Angel photo album to see the photos and get the ordering and sponsorship information. You can help me to reach my fundraising goals for these charities by sharing my website www.hugginzbyangel.com and spreading the word about my latest fundraising efforts.

Not only is this impressive, but it is also inspiring to see how she is using her blog, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to share the stories of so many others that are fighting battles and need our support.  Because of all the work she is doing, the mainstream media has started to take notice and, in addition to the numerous honours she has received, she has been recently featured at WeDay as well as on CTV.  Although I have never met Angel (but hope to one day), please take a moment to like her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter – you will read stories of empathy and unbelievable care that is having an impact on so many families needing support.

Negative issues like cyberbullying are important to discuss with our students and children; however, because of these issues it makes it that much more important for adults to model and be digital leaders for our youth.  Angel did not learn to use social media in a positive way one evening; she has the support of her mother to help tap into the power of social media and enhance her message and purpose.  As schools, we no longer can stick our heads in the sand and hope this goes away.  We need to be digital leaders and find ways to become part of the conversation, share powerful stories like Angel, and model the positive use of social media to our students.