The Thing With Social Media

It’s taken me a few days to catch up with work and other things before I could really catch my breath and address the events of last week in South Hadley.

For those of you who haven’t heard or read about it, a student at the high school published on Snapchat a number of videos which contained significant racist and homophobic content. My daughter, a senior at the high school, brought it to my attention on Tuesday morning-she was quite upset about the videos and the messages in them, as were many of her friends. Like hundreds of other people, she posted about it and discussed it on Facebook and was interviewed about it by MassLive, primarily because she is one of the only African American students at our high school.

On Wednesday afternoon she told me that the students were discussing a walkout, then updated me on Thursday morning that the students had been told they would be disciplined if they walked out, either through suspension or detention. I gave her my permission to go ahead because a core part of American life is speaking up.

I was really pleased and impressed that the students who walked out made a point in their interviews with the media that it wasn’t about the student who had posted the videos-their walk was to express their view that those messages don’t represent what South Hadley is about. I’m proud of my daughter for taking an active role in her school and her community.

What I want to write about today is not the messages themselves, or about racism, or homophobia, or even about whether or not students should be punished for posting messages or walking out of school.

Instead, I want to address one of the things which I think is a core challenge our students face in the modern world. Our students face challenges most of us couldn’t have dreamed of when we were their age. When I was in high school, everyone I knew made mistakes. People said the wrong thing and did the wrong things. People got into all kinds of trouble. They got into fights over girls and boys and who said what and who did what. But most of it ended at 3:30 when we went home at the end of the school day.

Today, many of our kids live with it 24×7. They’re up sending snapchat and Instagram posts at 2 am. And sometimes they’ll say the most terrible things. And thing about online life is, none of it is secret. Anything we post online might follow us forever. The mistakes I made as a sophomore in high school are known pretty much only to me, my Mom and God. And I thank God every day I didn’t blast it all over the Internet, because that just wasn’t a thing. Now? It’s live, 24 hours a day and it can be retrieved forever.

And let’s be real for a moment. This isn’t just kids. One of the interesting phenomena of last week was how many adults commented either on the videos-attacking the misguided girl who had posted them-as well as on the posts about the students who walked out of the school. Many of the comments-directed at children-were vile.

I understood the outrage many people felt about the original videos-but I also felt that many of the responses I saw were just as bad. And then, when the kids themselves organized their own quiet and respectful way to make a statement about it, other adults decided to take it upon themselves to say some pretty awful things about them.

It raises the question-how can we expect our children to behave respectfully online if adults can’t or won’t?

That’s why I believe it’s important for schools to address this type of thing early. In South Hadley schools (and I imagine every school in America) kids as young as third and fourth grade are walking around with smart phones. We as a community owe it to ourselves to help them learn what is appropriate – and what is inappropriate – behavior. As adults, we have to set the standard.
Some programs, like Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), have been proven to make a difference here. And what’s great about them is that they don’t just help kids with social behaviors, bullying and online behavior, but they help reduce depression and improve overall achievement. There’s plenty of science to back that up.

In the long term, our goal shouldn’t be to punish behavior after the fact, it’s to help prevent it before it becomes an issue. Our goal is to do our best to give every one of our kids the tools they need to become thoughtful, productive and active citizens and adults.

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