eyes of wolf Opinions on whether social media sites should be allowed in primary and secondary schools are often divided between those who believe in an educational value to the sites and those who believe that only evil can come of them.  Depending on the person, social media can be either deity or devil.  The latter perspective is bolstered by visceral news stories such as that of Phoebe Prince, a teenager from South Hadley, MA, who committed suicide over bullying via text messages and Facebook.  Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student, committed suicide after his roommate and another student had webcams trained on him while he engaged in sexual activity with another man.  Although social media wasn’t directly involved in this incident, it was on Facebook where Clementi posted his final words.

Given these traumatic outcomes, it certainly gives one reason to pause and consider whether social media ought to be allowed in the educational context at all.  Indeed, content filtering companies such as Websense speak ominously about the social media while featuring their logos prominently:

Facebook. YouTube. Search, search, search. You’re on the Web so much that it feels like home. But just around the corner, one or two clicks away, real danger lies in wait.

With danger lying just around the corner, it’s really a wonder that schools allow any access to the internet at all.

However, a recent study by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) paints a different picture.  According to the study, only 0.08% of the students in the study said that they had met someone in person from an online encounter without the parents’ permission.  Moreover, only about 7% of students self-identified themselves as having been cyber-bullied.  According to bullying statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U. S. Department of Education, about 32% of students reported having been bullied during the 2007 school year, approximately the same time as the NSBA study.  Assuming that both studies are accurate, incidents of cyber-bullying make up a tiny fraction of overall bullying incidents.  While the mainstream media would have us believe that Facebook and other social media sites are the root cause of all evil, these statistics clearly point to traditional bullying as the larger issue that needs to be addressed.

That said, just because something is not a problem – or not a problem at the level we think it is – does not in and of itself make that thing worthwhile in the educational context.  According to the same NSBA study, the three top social media activities were posting messages, downloading music, and downloading video . . . likely not educational activities unless the videos were, say, on how the ventricles pump blood.  On the other hand, though, the study does give us some promise: 10% of those surveyed said that they had participated in collaborative projects, and 9% said that they had submitted articles to websites.  If the curriculum were designed properly, such social media sites could both reach students where they are and leverage educational benefit.  Arguing against the blocking of social media sites, Slate writer Nicholas Bramble offers some insightful suggestions in his article “Fifth Period is Facebook.”

Mr. Bramble is right: blocking students from Facebook and other social media sites is not the right approach.  With over 500 million users – half of whom log onto the site on a daily basis – and 70% of whom are outside the United States, Facebook is clearly a part of the global community.  Social media has increasingly become the way that people network, find jobs, research products, and collaborate.  To remove it from the school setting is to deprive students of the opportunity to learn more about how to fully leverage these tools for education, professional development, and advancement.  According to a recent article in Education Week titled “Social Networking Goes to School,” many schools have begun to realize the potential educational benefits of social media, and have begun incorporating it both in the classroom and for the professional development of the teachers.

Perhaps we’ve gotten the story wrong.  Maybe social media isn’t the big bad wolf but is, instead, little red riding hood.  She’s got a basket of tools that could be used to benefit students.  Will you use them?