By Steve Nicholls, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Steve Nicholls is the author of Social Media in Business. He is a social media strategist hired by business executives to teach them how to implement a winning social media strategy into their organization.
The New York Education Department recently stated that in the first 11 months of 2011 there were 69 cases where teachers were accused of inappropriate conduct with students on Facebook. Some were fired as a result, and there is a growing trend by schools across the country to put a ban on social media.
This raises a question: Is prohibiting social media in schools the right way to protect children?
In my view, if the answer is yes then that would mean that as technology grows, schools are forbidden to grow with it, and that would somewhat be of a contradiction to what a school is supposed to be in the first place.
I believe it is critical that social media is allowed in schools as it presents a world of opportunities that far outweigh the risks if it is implemented safely and properly. Social media has become far too integrated into daily life on a global basis; failing to incorporate it into schools would do our children a disservice.
Think of how far the space has grown in just a few years (remember Myspace?) and imagine where it will be by the time your child is out of college. Trying to ban social media will simply not work. Just ask certain autocratic countries that have tried in vain. The question at the core of the issue is: Why ban it?
Concerned parents may point to the potential dangers and risks. What about inappropriate interaction with teachers? Or scams from online predators? Even adults fall prey to human emotion and post things they would love to have back. Why put my 10-year-old in that position?
My answer is to first acknowledge that these concerns are warranted and the threats are real. That being said, while the risks of social media are very serious, the biggest risk of all is not to embrace it. Bad people exist in all walks of life, and while we must protect against them, we must not let them hinder progress. For example, if a pedophile is found near a school playground, would you homeschool your child? I think in most instances the answer would be no.
The fact that the risks associated with social media are real is exactly the reason why it is important to make it part of school teaching. What better place is there to educate our youth about these potential risks so they can avoid them in the “real world?” Ignoring them will not make them go away.
As discussed in my book, Social Media in Business, I have helped implement social media across a variety of business sectors, and the core principles apply to schools, too. The key is to put a strong social media policy in place that identifies the potential risks and mitigates them so you can enjoy all the benefits social media has to offer. In the fast-changing digital world, there is not a “one size fits all” formula, but by adhering to certain principles and putting certain safeguards in place, schools can implement a safe and effective policy that will protect the school, the children and the teachers while maximizing learning.
I believe there are 10 important principles to consider that will help implement a safe and effective social media policy in schools:
1. Bring in experts: Working with both a legal team and social media experts is a good way to ensure the crafting of a solid social media policy, one that takes into account the benefits, risks and fast-changing landscape.
2. Make a clear written policy: The policy needs to plainly inform teachers, students and parents about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior and list the consequences of inappropriate behavior. The policy can be written and reinforced verbally and signed by all to confirm their understanding of every aspect of it.
3. Highlight past transgressions: The best way to connect with people is to humanize the issue. Schools could talk about previous cases of misconduct which led to firing of teachers and expulsions of students.
4. Strive for accountability: Remind teachers and students that they will be held accountable for everything they write on social media sites.
5. Create a classroom page: Teachers could consider establishing a separate classroom Facebook fan page that is safe and secure. By doing so, you are creating a safe environment to facilitate an online community full of learning.
6. Report inappropriate behavior immediately: If somebody writes or does something inappropriate through social media, reporting it immediately is very important. The good news with social media is that there will be electronic proof, and this avoids the typical “he said, she said” scenario found in many schools.
7. Remind students of proper use: On school time, social networking sites need to be used for learning activities and not leisure activities such as video gaming.
8. Assess policy vs. reality: Just because a policy is written does not mean it will be followed. Many “unwritten” rules will take shape, and the school needs to be vigilant and continuously reshape policy to match what is happening “on the ground.”
9. Involve parents and the community: Involving parents and the community is also important as this allows them to “police” proper conduct and keep a watchful eye.
10. Bring the risks to light: Children will use social media outside the classroom, thus the classroom is the perfect place to teach them about risks. Just as teachers tell children not to get in a stranger’s car, talking about the dangers of online predators can be incorporated into school learning and prepare them for life outside school.
I think the topic of social media in schools is worthy of great debate, but ultimately, it is in our children’s and our nation’s best interest to embrace its use as it will only become more of a core form of communication as we move further into the 21st century.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Nicholls.