Blog Post

The Highs and Lows of Social Media for Children

As an education researcher I primarily focus my research on youth who are in the grades K-12. I'm also concerned with how social media issues interact with traditional issues of public/private schooling - an environment where youth spend a good part of their waking hours. One of the floating topics these days is this issue of social media and youth learning.

On one side, recent work by scholar such as Mimi Ito highlight how young children and teenagers are doing quite amazing activities online. They're creating their own media such as blogs and YouTube videos. They are interacting with wider networks of individuals. Youth today participate in the global conversation in ways we've not seen with previous communication technologies. This trend is a good thing. For some, it signals an emergence of new literacies. For others, online networks facilitated by social media can enhance our traditional notions of learning as well.

However, we must also note the real challenges that social media participation creates for parents and educators. The issues are particularly salient for youth. Wesly Fryer's recent post about his young daughter's YouTube response to President Obama's speech is a good case study. Her video has received tens of thousands of views, and thousands of comments. He estimates that about 10% of these comments were disparaging, hurtful, or sexually explicit. As a parent and teacher, he made the astute decision to moderate the comments on the video. However, this process also took many hours out of his day and proved to be both emotionally and psychologically trying. Youth participation in a global conversation can be a good thing; it can also expose children to the dark-sides of our society.

Where do we go from here? Of course education and teaching young people how to navigate these new literacies is important. However, that's a vague gloss-over that doesn't highlight the critical details embedded in the "teaching". Opening up access to social media for youth is only one step. Incorporating social media into teachable moments is another step. But understanding the potential dangers and planning to guide students through the process is the real work for educators interested in digital media.

Yes, let's encourage our youth to use YouTube and other socially networked tools. But, be prepared as adults and educators, to spend many hours moderating comments, having personal discussions with students about why people say what they do, and offering mentoring and support when students have potentially damaging and hurtful experiences in their onilne communities. That will be the real work for teachers in the coming years as new media matures and becomes a more mainstream component of student learning.

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