In January 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill requiring all public schools to teach students how to use social media responsibly. The bill mandates students in sixth through eighth grades receive the instruction starting in the 2014-15 school year. Unless the New Jersey law hits a legal snag, I would expect to see other states follow their lead in the next year or so.
What should a curriculum for training students to use social media responsibly look like? And are there different types of training needed for different age groups? In the next weeks, I'll be exploring these questions as they relate to facilitating a social media training for a student population, whether they are middle school, high school, or college age. If you are looking for information on social media training for a student population, or if you have been charged with training a group of students, I'll endeavor to help you on your journey.
Different Strokes For Different (Age) Folks
All age groups are not created equally. When you're putting together a social media training curriculum, I suggest your first criteria should be age.
Dr. Megan Moreno, a professor and researcher on adolescent behavior, wrote a book in 2013 on the subject of how teens use social media titled, Sex, Drugs 'N Facebook. In the book, she sorts characteristics of students' social media behavior into four age groups:
- Tweens (Ages 8-12)
- Early Adolescence (Ages 12-14)
- Middle Adolescence (Ages 15-18)
- Older Adolescence (Ages 18-25)
A student's ability to cope with different aspects of their social world is directly mirrored in social media use. A 12-year old will not have the same standards about what is responsible as an 18-year old.
Last year, I conducted an informal survey of college student-athletes in my Practice Safe Social™ training workshops and found the following:
- The social media behavior of first-year college students is more closely related to the behavior of high school students than that of their older college cohorts.
- Most college seniors desire to align their social media habits more with adults and less with typical college-age behaviors.
Those observations might seem like no-brainers at first, but through a series of interviews with Student Services professionals and student-athletes, I came to the conclusion that one social media training does not fit all college students. In the last five years of training student-athletes, I've found the level of social media savvy has considerably heightened. College students are much more knowledgeable about privacy settings and appropriate behavior standards than they were in 2009. Because of those observations, you may want to consider revamping the approach of your social media training for college student-athletes. Rather than lumping all students into one training, it may be more beneficial to train freshmen separately from seniors, and aim the curriculum more to their needs.
Because the behavior and maturity of students ages 12-22 are different, I recommend customizing social media training curriculums to cater to differing needs, if possible. These recommendations are based on the findings of Dr. Moreno and Danah Boyd, author of It's Complicated. Customizing training allows you to address specific risks, behaviors, and best practices that will help each group navigate their needs. Grouping students together in like age and maturity groups also facilitates better learning as students are not coping with the additional pressure of being grouped with kids they don't share common social expectations with.
Middle School/Junior High
For most, middle school signals the beginning of puberty and the beginning of social media use. Even though many kids are using social media well before the age of 13, most social media platforms require kids to be 13 before setting up an account. I believe this is the best age to begin social media training. Here are just a few big picture characteristics to consider:
- At this stage, adolescents will begin to show an interest in having their own social media profiles, and asserting self-direction to an individual internet experience.
- Their desire to be independent motivates them to gravitate away from identification with the family's social media sites. They are just learning how to develop their own friendship communities and get out of the watchful eye of parents and teachers.
- There is both excitement and fear related to this stage, and students are highly susceptible to cyber harassment from their peers and predators as they are not sure who to trust yet. Their ability to deal with these threats is complicated by their emotional immaturity.
- This age group has completely crossed over from parental influence to peer influence. Their primary communities are made up of peers, in addition to family.
- Because of that distinction, high schoolers are becoming experts at constructing identities for each social community they operate in. They have drawn specific lines for each community and are disconcerted, even angry, when their family members enter their communities uninvited.
- Teens in this group are desperately trying to find ways to connect with their peers. Jobs, sports, protective parents, and school work have severely limited their time for face-to-face connecting. Social media has become their social life.
- This age group loves experimentation and trying new things. Many will push the boundaries of appropriate behavior in their real life and on social media to further establish control over their world.
College Age: First Year
- Students in this age group are trying to establish the balance of what it means to be independent and away from home. The distance between family and school often motivates them to let their family back into their social media circles at some level, but not into all their communities.
- Students in this age group tend to select friends based on common interests. Most don't go to college with these interest groups built in, so this is their first attempt at establishing adult friendship communities. They usually gravitate to one primary interest group, whether it's a sports team or student club, a Greek organization, a class, or dormitory mates. Their social media profiles start to mature as does their knowledge and practice of privacy settings.
- Because students in this age group tend to make friends in shared interest groups, their social media behaviors begin to take the norms of these communities into account. This is new for many students who had total control of their social media activity in high school. Now, there are new expectations to conform to the expectations of communities that also include adults such as coaches or compliance officers, and brands such as athletic departments. For most, this is their first experience representing a brand.
- Students in this age group are not used to being followed on social media by people they do not know. This often slows their desire to change their privacy settings. They still believe that their social media posts are only being seen by friends.
College Age: Seniors and Graduate Students
- Students in this age group consider themselves adults more than students. Even though they still use social media in shared interest groups, they are more aware that their social media presence is now an element that can help them land a potential job and move their career forward. They show interest in developing a personal brand presence on social media and seek education on how to put on a professional digital face.
- Students in this group may set aside one or two social media platforms that are friend-specific and may use alternate names that cannot be easily recognized. They vigorously maintain the right to approve friends on these channels and actively block people not in their shared interest groups. They are savvy social media users for the most part, and understand the "rules of engagement" when it comes to social media.
As I said earlier, I recommend customized social media training for each of these different age groups that speaks to the needs and behaviors of each. In the next piece of this series, I'll tackle the specific curriculum differences for each group.