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What Students Need to Know About Social Media Best Practices

Teaching students how to use social media responsibly is a hot topic of discussion in schools and athletic departments across the country. What should we teach them? Should there be a different curriculum emphasis for differing ages? How can they still connect with their friends and be safe?

In the first piece of this series, I wrote about the difference in behavior and need of various age groups. In the last piece, I addressed the first of three curriculum areas to cover: privacy. In this piece, we’ll take a look at the subject of best practices and what good goals for each age group might be. Later in the series, I'll take a closer look at the subject of cyber harassment.

 What Are Social Media Best Practices?

First off we just need to define the term social media best practices as it relates to responsible use. We’re not talking about how to build a personal brand—that’s the last curriculum module. When we talk about best practices, we are talking specific behaviors that indicate an internal understanding of what it means to be a responsible digital citizen.

What does responsible digital citizenship look like? In the curriculum, “Helping Your Child Become A Responsible Citizen” from the Department of Education, several qualities that shape behavior are addressed. They include compassion, honesty and fairness, self-discipline, good judgment, respect for others, self-respect, courage, and responsibility. These are a good place to start. Be thinking of how you can frame this concept of personal responsibility to their digital communities at every age level.

Setting Personal Boundaries

Students of every age need to understand the importance of boundaries, whether it’s setting them for themselves or honoring the boundaries of others. In my experience this is the most common cause of irresponsible online behavior. Giving them instruction on how to identify those boundaries and setting up systems to honor them is invaluable.

This will look different in every age group because the norms of behavior are different. The main point is to help them identify specific types of behavior that are outside the bounds of good digital citizenship. Don’t forget the “why.” Students learn better if there is a why to help them connect the guideline to their personal world.

With older high school students and college age kids, this could be done with screenshots that show examples of responsible behavior. But be careful with screen shots. Make sure you can connect the screenshots back to specific principles of digital citizenship so students understand what that behavior actually looks like. I’ve had positive feedback when I put two 140 character messages next to each other on one screen and ask students to identify why one shows responsible use the other does not.

Specific points for differing age groups:

Middle School

Best practices at this age level have two basic components: cyber harassment and proper use of social media for private conversations.

The majority of schools today have bullying prevention education in the lower grades. This needs to include cyber harassment as well. Not only do they need to understand what bullying looks like online, they need to understand how to protect themselves and be proactive about reporting cyber harassment to teachers and parents. This is a perfect age to pull parents in for education as well.

The foundation for privacy education needs to start here. Most kids in this age group are on social media for the first time and their new found freedom away from the eyes of adults can tempt them to inappropriate behavior. The emphasis to this group is: no matter what, your conversations are never private. Help them understand that social media is a public forum. Give them solid instruction about how to set up private communities with friends, and not to connect with people they don’t know. Basic stuff from the piece on privacy.

High School

High school students need education on the various public audiences that are interested in finding them online—college admissions, potential employers, college coaches, and others. Even though we know from research by Danah Boyd and others that students have a basal need to connect with peers, they need to understand that peers aren’t the only ones watching. I’ve found that many students resent the  fact that strangers are watching what they’re doing. We need to make the argument that social media can be a great place to connect, but there are better ways to keep your communications private such as phone calls and text messages. What kind of communication is appropriate for what channel?

College Age-Athletics Specific (First Year)

Best practices for college freshmen needs to address the idea of community responsibility. We’ve taught them how to be good digital citizens, but college will be the first place (for most) that there is an element of direct responsibility to an organization such as an athletic department or university. These students need that responsibility spelled out. I recommend that all college athletic departments have guidelines of responsible use for student-athletes spelled out in the student-athlete handbook. How specific these get will be determined by your department culture. This group will need some media training as well as personal social media training.

College Age (Seniors and Graduate Students)

This age group needs some focused instruction on how to use social media to build a personal brand. This includes two basic components: inventory/assessment and a blueprint for success.

The first step is to have them do an assessment of their current social media portfolio—everything from avatars to bio lines to content. Approach this from a professional point of view. Give them a checklist and have them comb through their profiles. Fix what needs fixing. Give them the tools. Help them write crisp, professional bio lines and show them what a professional avatar looks like. This is social media career class.

The blueprint for success means making sure they have basic profiles set up on sites where potential employers are looking: Google Plus, LinkedIn,, Twitter, and other professional resume sites. Give them a template for setting up a LinkedIn profile correctly or bring someone in from Career Services who can help. This is the final social media check-up before they leave your charge. Address the need to change their content emphasis from college student to adult. 

Even though this is a quick overview of how to approach best practices in your social media training, you are welcome to contact me with any questions you have  at

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