MANSFIELD, Mass. — Peter Lally, an 18-year-old Mansfield High student, reaches into his back pocket and pulls out his cellphone.
As president of his school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, vice president of the class of 2018 and a member of the cross country team, it might seem irresponsible for him to be wasting time scrolling through Twitter.
But that is not the case.
Once on his favorite social media site, he is able to post on the honor society’s Facebook account to let members know of upcoming meetings. He then checks his AP English homework before going back to Twitter to check the news. He opens the “trending” tab and reads through the headlines — short, easy-to-digest briefs of daily events.
“I use Twitter for everything,” Lally said. “I’m super busy and social media is really convenient.”
It has become common practice for students like Lally to use social media as a tool for learning and connecting.
A 2017 study done by the Pew Research Center found that a whopping 67 percent of Americans get their daily dose of news and current events from updates found on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other sites.
But even with the evidence that social media is becoming much more than a platform for gossip and wasted time, most schools still have parts of social media blocked on their computers and Wi-Fi networks.
The schools’ reasoning lies in an uncertainty over such a radical change from the anti-social media platforms they have been running on since MySpace came out in 2003.
“There is a concern about making sure that we’re not creating opportunities for students during the school day to engage in things they shouldn’t be engaging in,” said Mary Watkins, the principal at Mansfield High School.
Mansfield took longer than other schools to institute a cellphone-friendly policy, allowing limited use of devices throughout the day starting only this September.
When it comes to unblocking certain forms of social media, Watkins said, “Right now, we’re not quite there yet.” She did mention, however, that the school has plans for addressing the issue further in the future.
Julia Atwood, a history teacher at Mansfield High, agreed it could take a while to develop a new policy, but noted the importance of educating kids by utilizing tools relevant to them.
“Being able to recognize and evaluate different (news) sources is important,” she said.
Other schools shared Atwood’s view.
Joseph Baeta, the schools superintendent in Norton, has introduced social media to his district in the form of a school-run Twitter page, which is used almost daily to update students on club meetings, athletic events, and other school-related information.
He was a strong advocate for not demonizing social media based on the mistakes that are made by a few kids.
“They’re still trying to figure out what to do and what to not do,” he said, adding that he believes the majority of students are using social media in a positive manner.
Baeta’s approach focuses on emphasizing a policy of “digital citizenship,” which works to teach younger kids how to be responsible about managing their social media accounts.
Megan Lafayette, the principal of Norton High School, agreed.
“Part of it is trying to figure out the real news and the fake news,” she said. “I think because our teachers are active on things like Twitter, we can have those conversations.”
Teachers in Norton and other districts in the area have begun using social to post assignments, give feedback on work and connect with parents outside of school.
Kent Taylor, an English teacher at Norton High, uses websites as a way to connect outside the classroom with parents and students.
“The biggest benefit I have found is just being able to get information to parents and students more effectively,” he said. “It definitely helps when building up a program.”
Brian Hodges, the social studies coordinator for Attleboro High School, plans to have one of his classes create a student-run Twitter page for class.
“Social media gives kids a voice,” he said. “It gives them access to new things, like the ability to reach out to experts all around the world for classroom projects. Kids could never do that before.”
He also emphasized making sure educators are not turning their backs on these sites.
“Educators have a responsibility to teach kids about these apps,” he said. “Snapchat is the new note passing.”
North Attleboro High School Principal Peter Haviland said he likes the idea of accepting new technology in school, but wasn’t sure what its limits should be.
“There is a concern with limitless access,” he said. “To provide unobtrusive access to students would make things challenging.”
One of these challenges is, as Lafayette said, the surge of “fake news” being propagated around the web, especially within social media platforms. Educators are hesitant to promote getting news from sites whose reliability has been questioned.
Bill Runey, principal of Attleboro High School, cited this phenomenon as even more reason to incorporate the use of social media into a curriculum.
“If we can help them with how to gauge what’s fake and what’s not, social media is a great portal to use,” he said.
Despite most schools in the area boasting cellphone-friendly policies, they still have little to no access to Wi-Fi.
Attleboro High is one of the few schools that does offer free Wi-Fi for its students, but Runey said it has always had issues with unreliable service.
“The fact that not everyone has an unlimited data plan, it kind of helps us from the standpoint that people are choosy on how often they use their phones,” he said. Without a wireless connection, students are forced to use their phone’s data, which can get expensive if a student accidentally goes over their limit while trying to check Twitter.
When it comes to social media use in the classroom, Vincent Raynauld, assistant professor for the communication studies department at Emerson College, said the key is to educate people about it and about “the validity of news.”
“Banning these sites in schools does not prevent students from going on them on their own,” he said.
Raynauld generally discourages teachers from blocking, and consequently ignoring, social media entirely. That could lead to students graduating without a skill becoming more and more important: The ability to maintain a successful and respectable social media presence.
His overall message to teachers and schools?
“Engage with it. Don’t dismiss these sites.”
Information from: The (Attleboro, Mass.) Sun Chronicle, http://www.thesunchronicle.com