2017-03-26 / Insight

Educators put focus on responsible social media use

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Students like Cameron Guerro in Carmen Woodruff’s sixth-grade technology class learn internet safety and social media responsibility every day. 
Photo by Nicholas Pugliese Students like Cameron Guerro in Carmen Woodruff’s sixth-grade technology class learn internet safety and social media responsibility every day. Photo by Nicholas Pugliese NORTH BRANCH — Each generation approaches social media differently, in how people of different age groups interact with one another online, which applications and online services a person may favor to even how one defines the term itself.

For young people, social media isn’t a “new” concept — it’s existed since they were born and each young person in Lapeer County’s schools of every level uses social media daily. And the younger the student, the more adept he or she is at the nuance of each flavor of social media.

Area educators realize this, and recognize the fact that to keep kids engaged, they have to embrace social media and try to highlight the positivity that constant connectivity can bring while mitigating the negative effects can be wrought from reckless and irresponsible usage.

North Branch Area Schools Superintendent Jim Fish has been on the forefront of that movement to embrace technology and sees the important role education has in the battle against the dangers of irresponsible social media use. “From my perspective, I know that my generation is always concerned with how (social media) is used,” said Fish. “But today that’s how young people interact and socialize, and we have to embrace it.”

And embrace it they have. Fish has placed a priority on technology education at all levels in North Branch Area Schools. “You have to be tech-savvy — you have to be fluent in technology like you have to be fluent in English in order to get a job in today’s world,” Fish said. “We’re doing (students) a disservice if we don’t focus on that.”

Carmen Woodruff is the technology teacher for Ruth Fox Elementary School in North Branch and teaches students from fifth to eighth grade. A central part of her lesson plans features responsible social media use as well as what she refers to as a student’s “digital footprint” — a term that defines the lasting legacy a person generates by interacting and posting online.

“The term ‘digital footprint’ is really more of a ‘digital tattoo’,” said Woodruff. “A footprint you can just wash away easily but a tattoo takes much more work to change.”

The same is true with one’s presence online, says Woodruff. It’s easy to do and say anything from the safety of one’s computer or connected device, and often a person may not realize how lasting those actions can be.

“This is something we talk about (in class) all the time, all year long,” Woodruff said. “Everything you do online — the trail you leave on digital media — if I’m talking online and say something I shouldn’t, can I take that away easily? No.” Woodruff introduces her students to responsible digital citizenship starting in fifth grade, but even at the elementary level, the students have already been exposed to the concepts of online safety.

In North Branch Schools, students are issued email accounts starting in fifth grade, and it’s part of Woodruff’s job to help her fifth-grade students how to use email safely and responsibly. “When they come here in our building (at Ruth Fox), the kids get email addresses,” said Woodruff. “And we have to show them what safe email posting is, what an appropriate email is.”

As kids get older and advance through the Ruth Fox Elementary School, Woodruff increases the scope of her lessons to cover social media. “In sixth grade, we introduce the ‘digital footprint’ concept. We show them how to search for evidence of their footprint with Google and how to protect that footprint,” said Woodruff.

“We start talking about what is and is not appropriate to post online via social media, how to keep safe.” In most cases, students at the middle school level are already well-versed in social media, using various platforms like Tumblr, Vine, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram daily to interact with each other, but sometimes, Woodruff has found, the kids might not realize what some of the dangers might be.

“If you do something negative on social media it will take a lot of effort to make that go away,” said Woodruff. “I’ll have students that know everything about safety and some that have no idea (coming into class).”

Fish also pointed toward being mindful of that balance. “(Social media) gives kids an opportunity to interact and be socially active,” said Fish. “But it has to be used responsibly, and it’s our job to teach them that, and to educate them on the dangers of misuse.”

Rather than suppress social media usage, Fish recommends that educators instead highlight the positives that can come with its use when approached from an educated, responsible position.

“A lot of good can come of social media,” he said. “I don’t think we can paint a negative picture because of a small minority (that use it badly).” Parents also play a vital role in proper social media use, said Woodruff, and a student whose parents are involved in their social media use is much more aware of the pitfalls of misuse. “It’s imperative that a parent gets involved,” she said. “It’s imperative that we as adults foster responsible digital citizenship. If you won’t do it in real life, don’t do it online.”

Educators in Lapeer County and across the country are seeing both sides of the story when it comes to social media, but it’s evident that with each subsequent generation, social media use becomes more and more entrenched in the daily routine.

“It’s amazing, for the little kids it’s intuitive, they have intrinsic still with technology that people my age don’t have,” Woodruff said. “It’s fascinating to watch them interact with technology. For them it’s like a pencil, and it’s exciting to see where they can take it.”

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