Social Media and Digital Citizenship

We have an official school twitter account on our website’s homepage which re-tweeted a student’s post about the football game. If you clicked on the student’s twitter account, it was full of school inappropriate language. And since I teach our students about digital citizenship, I got to thinking more deeply about the topic.

Current Thinking:
Social media is a powerful tool for connecting people together, but there is no way to prevent exposure to content that a person might deem offensive other than to completely block the use of social media. Even with good intentions and reasonable diligence to try to prevent offensive content being connected to the school accounts, by clicking through pages linked to our social media account there is a chance that some content that we are not in control of could be found offensive. Every twitter account of a business, school, public person, or professional has to accept the fact that they share the space with hateful speech, offensive jokes, and naked pictures.

For example even without re-tweeting, a person could click on a twitter account’s follower list and see who follows that account. Since a person doesn’t have control over who follows their account, there might be an account (real or one of the millions of spambots) following the account which is posting offensive content and they would have to do quite a bit of work to monitor and cleanup their follower list.

Our students follow the school twitter accounts and they will very likely have material which many people deem offensive on their twitter pages just like if we recorded their conversations in the halls we would hear some offensive speech.

However, students (and adults as well) have a hard time thinking about the fact that online interactions can be taken out of the context they were intended: late night jokes between friends at home can be scrutinized in the principal’s office the next day. We have these discussions with students regularly, but it is a justifiably difficult line to walk to be social and engaged online and to also never post something that someone in another context might find offensive.

Here are some factors that make it hard for people to keep their online behavior squeaky clean:

  1. There is such a huge volume of social media so it is unlikely any particular thing a person posts will come back to hurt them. So people learn they can be edgy/offensive without any negative feedback.
  2. There are plenty of examples of people doing and saying whatever they want on social media and getting praise, so people learn that one way to get attention is to push the boundaries of what is appropriate.
  3. Social media is largely insular, in that most people are only posting for and being actively read by a handful of friends. So a behavior or style of speech can be reinforced in that small group setting without any negative feedback (like using racial or gender slurs).
  4. Social media is fast, a particular topic quickly becomes irrelevant, and so people learn to post quickly so that they are involved in the topic of the moment.
  5. People’s internal thoughts are not as appropriate as their social behavior and interacting with a phone or computer screen doesn’t have the social feedback cues that come from speaking to another person. So paradoxically people’s public posts can contain content closer to the thoughts inside their mind, not the thoughts they normally share with others.

All of these factors work against the thoughtfulness that we encourage during our yearly digital citizenship presentations. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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