School Children and Social Media, an Interview with Samantha Russell
Interviewer: Tim Martin, February 2014. Episode #9 from the NET:101 podcast.
TIM: Welcome. With me today we have Sam Russell. Sam.
SAM: Afternoon, Tim.
TIM: So glad you could be here. Thanks for coming in.
SAM: My pleasure.
TIM: Sam, you are a teacher at an independent school here in Victoria. Up until last year, it was Grade 5 and 6?
TIM: And now it’s Grade 1.
TIM: The reason I’ve got you here today is I’m dying to get some insight as to what kids around the age of 11 or 12 are doing online or with social or with apps. Of course, I can imagine no person in a better position than a teacher on the ground to give us that insight.
The thing I want to ask you first up is what are these kids using? What would an 11, 12-year-old boy or girl in a social media context be using? What applications?
SAM: In my experience as a teacher and stepmother, I would say Kik and Instagram and Snapchat for maybe a little bit older, but certainly some of the Grade 5s and 6s would be using Snapchat as well.
TIM: I’m around Instagram; I know what Snapchat is. Kik I’ve not heard of.
SAM: It’s like a free text messaging app. So kids are able to talk to each other, send text messages or SMS without having to pay a carrier for the text messaging. It’s a free way of talking.
TIM: Okay. Facebook, they would be too young for – I mean, legally. I would imagine a few of them would be on Facebook, but that’s not really on their radar at this point?
SAM: No, no, not in primary school. Once they get into high school, then they’re probably going to set up an account, maybe as part of their high school ICT class. But it’s not really that popular, certainly in the school that I work in, for primary school kids to have Facebook accounts. They might play on their parents’ Facebook account, like some of the games, Candy Crush or whatever. But they still talk to each other, share photos, update status, but just not on Facebook.
TIM: Yeah, okay. I would imagine that would filter into a particular school – I mean, the network effect of the majority being on a particular network, of course that brings the rest across.
SAM: That’s exactly right.
TIM: So possibly that could differ from school to school, as to what is prevailing?
SAM: I would say so. And I would also say it would depend on the teacher and what kind of things, what kind of apps they were using in their class as well, on their iPads. That would probably also introduce them to some new things as well that they might want to use.
TIM: As a teacher, do you have visibility into their social activities? Are you able to view from the outside what they’re doing?
SAM: In school, the apps that they would use are for creating and researching and finding information. There’s a lot of creativity with kids when they’re working in school, but in terms of their communication, you would really only know about their communication if they reported it to you or told you.
As a stepmother, I think you probably have less awareness of what the kids are doing with communication and social media. So as a teacher, I hear about some things that they’re saying to each other just off the cuff; I don’t think that many adults really have much insight into the world of communication these days with children under the age of 13.
TIM: Or if they do, not on the networks that they’re gathering around.
SAM: No, that’s right. That’s exactly right.
TIM: That level of visibility that I was talking about, if I know the user account name on Instagram, I don’t have to follow the person; that’s public information that I can just go and I can look at the images that they’re posting. Are you ever tempted as a teacher to go and look at the students’ accounts?
SAM: I’m not. That might be right or wrong, but I think as a parent, I think that’s where the responsibility lies with communication. For example, my stepdaughter had maybe 50 followers on Instagram, and I think that that’s a parental responsibility to be one of the followers and to know about their account.
I do know with Facebook that quite a few parents will set their children up with accounts as long as they are friends and can have complete access to their account as well.
TIM: Which kind of negates the whole reason they’re getting an account.
SAM: Exactly, yeah.
TIM: What’s the appeal with Snapchat, for example? I know fundamentally how it works, that it’s an asset that self-destructs after a few seconds. Was it 10 seconds?
SAM: Yeah, 10 seconds. You can set the limit, though. It could be 2 seconds if you wanted to as well. I don’t know, I got it because my stepdaughters have it and they liked using it, so they encouraged me to get it.
For me, I wouldn’t have really found any different between sending someone a photo attaching it to an SMS and Snapchat. But I think it’s just that kind of flasher, voyeuristic interest that you see it and then you don’t get to see it anymore. Just that element of surprise. So I think that’s what the kids like.
And I don’t think that it’s certainly R-rated or restrictive in what they send; it’s just fun, and they like the idea of something opening and then, as you said, self-destructing. They like that element of fun.
TIM: Of course, it’s not going to stop anyone from taking a screen grab of an image.
TIM: Kids, do they get a sense of the permanent nature of what they’re posting online? Does anyone sit down and say, “Look, this is all fun, but do you realize this is going to be here forever?”
SAM: The decision-making part of your brain doesn’t fully, completely finish growing until you’re about 23. So if I asked you, “Does your daughter have full awareness of the ramification of what she says?”, you would say probably intellectually yes, because I’ve told her, but experientially, no.
It’s the same thing no matter what kind of media or material you’re using; they understand technically right and wrong, but that’s certainly not something that is fully developed within them.
TIM: That sounds like a recipe for disaster. (laughs)
SAM: Potentially, potentially. (laughs)
TIM: I mean, there are many adults that get caught in this trap, just not thinking through the implications of what they’re posting. Of course, that turns around and bites them in the bum.
SAM: Yeah, that’s right.
TIM: Do you reckon there’s some sort of need for some formal education around the implications online, the etiquette? Or is that just all too [inaudible 00:07:10]?
SAM: I think it’s mandatory that there’s formal education, because it’s like saying to a child when they’re 18, “Okay, you can go out and make every decision for yourself now,” and yet you haven’t taught them everything they need to know prior to that to make those decisions. You have to tell them everything. You have to give them education before you can set them free in the world, so that they can evaluate actions that they’re choosing whether or not they take. So we have to tell them; otherwise, how are they going to know?
TIM: Would that require the educator, the trainer, to have a good insight into, for example, how Snapchat works? If you’re going to talk about it –
SAM: Absolutely. Yeah, of course.
TIM: You have to know it, inside out.
SAM: Yeah, and you have to know what’s currently trending at the moment as well.
TIM: So how do teachers keep up to speed with that?
SAM: I think teachers are lucky because they hear stuff being talked about all the time, whether it’s Lalaloopsies or apps or movies. We’re lucky. Kids just talk about it because it’s their reality and their life. I think it’s much harder for parents. Parents might know what toys are trendy, but once children get to that age where the social group is more important than anything else, there’s nothing that we can do to fight that. That’s a reality that we have to accept.
So when that trumps everything else in those years of 11, 12, 13, 14, the children aren’t meaning to keep us out, but there are just bigger things on their agenda than their parents.
TIM: And I would also imagine that they’re going to jump from platform to platform, to something that hasn’t been invented yet or something that’s uncool now that was cool and vice versa.
SAM: Yeah, like MySpace and Facebook. Was it MySpace? (laughs)
TIM: Oh yeah, back in the day. You and I were there, Sam. So Facebook, even though they’re legally not able to be there – they’re 11, 12 – it doesn’t stop them from being there. But I’m wondering if maybe that’s just not cool enough.
SAM: Absolutely. And there’s so many cool free apps that just come all the time, that become trendy. They’re much more fun. Also if they know their parents are on Facebook, I don’t think that’s necessarily very appealing. (laughs)
TIM: No, it’s a bit of a downside. Have to get them over to Google+. So you mentioned apps. In the school that you work at, do you use iPads?
TIM: And there are apps obviously running on those iPads. Does the Department of Education or does the – well, you’re an independent school, but does someone make decisions around what apps are going to end up on those iPads and what they’re going to be exposed to?
SAM: I can’t speak for public schools, but obviously all schools have security filters. There’s that level of security that is always applied. But with apps, teachers are constantly being approached by publishers and creators with great new educational apps. There’s absolutely amazing things that you can do with literacy, with art, with music, with photography – everybody knows there’s no limit to the creativity that you can have that’s really relevant to education.
So I think teachers are constantly being bombarded. We have to keep up a certain amount of hours of professional development every year to keep our license, so teachers have to go to – and we love to go to professional development, and a lot of teachers these days like to go to the IT PD sessions for whiteboards, for iPads.
And they might be just solely about great apps that are out at the moment for numeracy or great apps that are out at the moment for writing. We can share writing with someone who’s halfway around the world just by using a great literacy app, and create a beautiful story. That makes it so much more fun for children.
So teachers are constantly being bombarded with really exciting and really useful and relevant educational apps.
TIM: Are children at your school able to bring their own devices to school?
SAM: No. It’s a primary school, and some children do bring them because they need to use them as a phone or for messaging after school if they’re walking home or if they need to text a parent or a guardian, but they’re not supposed to bring them out. And it’s really mainly because in primary school, kids often just lose stuff on the playground, stuff gets trodden on.
If there was an ICT class and the teacher wanted to focus on something on iPods, they would probably send a note home to the parents to say “Could you please send your child’s iPod in for an activity that we’re going to do on iPods for this week in ICT?”
TIM: Kids are sort of – I don’t know, they’re experimenting, they’re pushing the envelope. They try new stuff out. Is that proactively encouraged, or is that something that’s just naturally going to happen, kids being kids?
SAM: I think it’s both. There’s a big range of teachers in the world. Some teachers personally automatically go to expressing themselves through their iPads and their laptops and different devices, so they’re going to be the kind of teachers that are going to actively encourage children to work that way naturally. And then there are other teachers who just don’t have that in their life, and so they’re probably going to have to work at it a little bit more to introduce that into their lessons.
So you’ve got the teachers and the philosophy of the school, and then you’ve just go the children, being kids, they are going to. Because they love it; it’s intuitive for them, it’s easy for them, it makes them happy.
TIM: Yeah. I love the creative aspect of the web. Not necessarily apps, but just being able to do some interesting stuff online. Manipulate images and animations. I guess a giant storyboard, which I probably would’ve really enjoyed back in my time. But I’m about 30 years too late for that one.
The resources online – obviously the web is a wonderful place, but it’s also a dark place. In terms of kids discovering what they’re going to use online, Wikipedia could be an example. Great resource. Do you walk that balance between wanting kids to experiment and discover stuff online, but want to prevent them from obviously seeing the dark side of the web?
SAM: Look, it’s tricky. You’ve got things like TeacherTube, which are probably a little bit more filtered with what comes up when you go onto TeacherTube rather than YouTube. But I’ll be showing my kids something on YouTube, and there’ll be an M-rated ad that flashes across the screen. And of course, that’s the first thing that they see.
So there’s some preparation that’s required by teachers to set things up first, to make sure that they know what they’re getting into. Even there’s so many cool clips on YouTube on how to do something or how to make something with stop-motion animation or whatever it is that you’re creating, and obviously it’s really important that the teacher is prepared and has stepped through every step of the process first.
That’s a bit harder when you’re doing research and you’ve got X amount of children in your class, and there might be 15 different research projects going straightaway, and you want them to be able to have fun and reach fairly widely in the way that they try to access information, filter it, make sense of it, and then reproduce it for their own means.
I’m lucky because in my school, there’s a small amount of numbers of students, so I can almost singlehandedly oversee all of them at the same time. I like for them to be able to use Wikipedia, I like for them to be able to go on Google. And as I said, there are security restrictions in place in school computers.
But I do think that it’s a very tricky thing for teachers, and they need to take it seriously when they’re taking their kids through particularly research. Because if you know what you want to show the kids, then you can view it first and make sure it’s okay, but it’s still – you never quite know what might be ahead of you, as you said, in the darker aspects.
SAM: Of the tunnels.
TIM: Yes indeed. Wikipedia. My daughter, who is just coming up on 10, was doing a research project a couple of months ago on [inaudible 00:16:00], and she was told outright by her teacher that they weren’t allowed to reference anything on Wikipedia, for the reason being – well, that she told me anyway, that it was full of inaccuracies. Which I thought was a bizarre position.
Now, is that an example of a teacher just not being up to speed as to what Wikipedia is and what it isn’t?
SAM: Possibly. The reason I love being a primary school teacher is you’re teaching them to be in society and to be good members of society. And part of learning how to read is to make sense of it yourself. Children are going through the process of reading and filtering what they’re reading and working out “Does that make sense? Do I believe that?”
I think that’s a very valid process of learning that children have to be guided through. If they’re only given snippets of information from a textbook, then they’re going to think that everything they read in the future is truth. So I don’t mind children being on websites that are giving information, and part of their process of maturing as a thinker is working out “Does that make sense? How does that compare to something else that I’ve found?”
I don’t want my primary school students to graduate and be innocent in how they go about accessing information. I’d like for them to be able to discern what seems to be logical and how that compares with other things.
TIM: Yeah, maybe what’s required here is a higher level of critique around the information that they gather and where. Maybe in the day of reading a newspaper or encyclopedia, you could take it as given that that was the way it was, but now you’ve got to maybe reference more than one source and be a little more questioning.
SAM: That’s the world that we live in. I mean, that’s what adults have to do all the time, so children need to learn that as well. That’s really part of the curriculum of ICT, is being able to make sense of something and check the validity of it.
TIM: Yeah, triangulation. I talked before about reputational damage, that we can put an image out there or a statement, and pretty much it’s there forever. You can’t push the toothpaste back into the tube. What about some of the other implications, some situations kids might get themselves into?
For example, they’re very angry at a best friend, they post something online in the heat of the moment, and of course it’s all gone 10 minutes later, but that image or that statement is out there. Do you see that happening?
SAM: That tends to be attached to Facebook a lot. Teacher friends who are in high schools or friends who have adolescent children will talk about that. That awfulness doesn’t seem to rear itself so much in primary school.
But the thing that I’m concerned about is with Kik, which is – nothing against Kik; it could be any kind of SMS app – you can have a shared conversation between six or eight people at the same time. So if it’s the weekend and you’re just kicking back in your bedroom and you’re really relaxed, you might say some things that are a bit more relaxed that you wouldn’t say if you were in the physical environment of a school. When you’re in a school, you learn rules for school.
Children are very good at learning “This is what we do in school,” but what about when they’re having the same social group conversation, but the environment is home? They can tend to be a little bit more relaxed about what they’re saying, and I’m concerned about the boundaries of responsibility for things like that. I get concerned about bullying and bordering on bullying.
So I think that’s definitely something that schools and families need to be very worried about. Well, not necessarily worried, but being a part of.
TIM: And aware.
TIM: Seems like that would be quite a complicated issue to tackle.
SAM: Yeah. Because the thing is, you don’t want that child to be in that situation because they’re hurting themselves. When we innocently say something that comes out as hurtful, that child is immediately hurt themselves by saying that.
They’re not necessarily of an age to be able to discern quickly enough that what they’re saying is going to have an impact. So it comes out, and not only do they have the ramifications of it hurting the person that they were saying something about, but themselves – I worry that we haven’t lived up to our responsibilities as people who are helping these little saplings grow into strong trees, to be able to get themselves out of those sticky situations.
TIM: Even the trees, even the grownups, can’t help themselves sometimes.
SAM: That’s exactly right.
TIM: But I guess we can forgive an 11- or 12-year-old for not being able to think through the future ramifications. When you’re 24, probably no excuse, right?
SAM: No, that’s right. Twenty-four, that’s it.
TIM: That’s it, that’s right. You mentioned bullying. I have no personal experience of this myself, both as an individual, but with my family. I guess that you have. Have you seen incidence of cyberbullying?
SAM: It’s hard because I’m at a small school, and when you’re in a very small environment, it’s much harder to dismiss the feelings of another person. So I would not say bullying; I would say conversations that were not managed that could’ve been hurtful to other people.
I think bullying is an organized and directed process of hurtful behavior, and I don’t think that this was organized or thought through at all. I think it was a child being a child, and we let that child down by not giving that child enough information and support. So I don’t think really that the people that should be responsible is that child necessarily; it’s the adults who are supposed to be there to lead the child.
But you hear about bullying in high schools, and I think it’s a very fine line as well with bullying. That’s why it’s much harder to keep track of when you’re talking about cyberbullying.
TIM: And of course there are flavors, different types of bullying. Exclusion is the big one. I was reading an article yesterday talking about Instagram and how it can have the effect of making people feel excluded from –
SAM: The group.
TIM: The party that they weren’t invited to, or the trip that they’re not on, or that special event. And that’s something, again, that you and I never had to worry about, because the party went on and we didn’t even know it was happening. (laughs)
SAM: Absolutely. (laughs)
TIM: No images to look at. Do you think kids are aware of posting in terms of a boast, of a show-off? Is that a motivation, or are they fairly random, they just want to get stuff out there?
SAM: I think that kids in Grade 5 and 6 that I encounter are more just singing with happiness of some exciting event, and they just want to get it out there. Yeah, I don’t think that I’ve encountered people doing that at all to be hurtful. But somehow we have to teach people about that, because this is the life that we live. This is the times that we live in, that it’s going to happen.
TIM: Yeah, that’s right.
SAM: And it has to be taught. It has to be talked about.
TIM: Yeah, I’m thinking there’s a need for some formal structure around how this is taught. Sex education, for example, is fully integrated into the program.
SAM: Policy, yeah.
TIM: Because that’s a pretty important thing to know. How to act, react or not, the etiquette of online, the implications of permanent digital content, should be a class.
SAM: Oh, absolutely. And it’s the most essential thing, because what you remember, probably, of primary school and early high school is not what you learnt, but the friends that you had and the social things that you did. And that’s the most important thing.
This is how kids are socializing. This is the most important aspect of how they’re making sense of themselves with reference to everybody else. It’s the most important. And I think it’s very exciting, because you’re talking to kids about what’s important and how they – for me, I love talking to children about what they’re doing and how it affects other people. I think it’s really exciting.
But what schools have to do is be aware they’re going to have to change their policies every year, because every single year there’s new apps, there’s different associations with the apps, whether it’s that it’s a 10-second photo you get to see or what are the extra things that happens when you use this app.
TIM: Like a conference call on Google+. We could have nine other people in on a video call that can be recorded.
SAM: Yeah, that’s right.
TIM: As you said, it moves fast. You mentioned Instagram before, and your stepdaughter had a number of followers, which rang a few alarm bells for you. Why was that?
SAM: Because she just wanted followers to increase her number of followers. We said to her, “Who’s this? Who’s this? Who’s this? Who’s this?” and she had no idea. So we asked her to delete those followers.
But the thing is with free apps, children can be downloading them, and they’re for free so they don’t have to ask their parents for money or anything like that, and they can just keep adding them to their phone or their iPod, and parents don’t necessarily have to know.
TIM: There’s a potential danger here of that creepy side of the web, people stalking or even going so far as to groom. Is that what was on your mind?
SAM: That was not foremost in my mind. Foremost in my mind was the thundering realization that my stepdaughter wasn’t thinking about those people and what their view of her might’ve been at all. For her, it was “I just want to have lots of followers and this is fun,” and there was no thinking whatsoever – of course, and I’m glad that she doesn’t have that aspect to her thinking yet in away, because she’s sweet and hasn’t had any experience of those darker parts of life – but that’s not in their mind at all, the darker aspects of what they’re doing.
TIM: I’ve seen many adults chasing big numbers. They want to have that public scoreboard of having a large number of friends, connections on whatever network they have. I would imagine that’s accentuated as a child.
TIM: That it makes you more important, especially if you’ve got more followers.
SAM: Absolutely. Because with adults, we’ve been through adolescence, and we’ve learnt how to deal with us compared to everybody else. By and large, we’re fairly settled with who we are and we’re more accepting of the fact that not everyone is going to like us.
But for adolescents, that’s happening for them right now. They’re in the time of their lives when peer group trumps everything else. It’s a completely different experience.
TIM: (laughs) Gosh. I’m glad we’re not back there.
SAM: Oh, same. It was very simple for us, wasn’t it?
TIM: I think we had our own issues back in the day, but certainly this – I think there was a level of visibility that parents had. I mean, obviously we could go in the back park, and they never knew what we were up to there either. And believe me, there were all sorts of things we got up to.
TIM: Well, you know, as a normal young boy then, absolutely. But yes, I guess it’s almost deceptive that they’re in the room. You feel like you’ve got some control or oversight into what they’re doing, but of course, you don’t know what they’re looking at on the screen. What they’re producing, what they’re consuming.
What would be your advice to a parent or parents that have an 11- or 12-year-old boy or girl – here she is online, maybe they’ve got an iPod, Nexus 7, whatever – they’ve got an inkling that they’re not around what’s happening. Should they intervene, should they sit down, should they try and be friends with them on the network to get that level of visibility? What would your general advice be?
SAM: I personally think that it’s a bit of a downer if the parent’s friends on the child’s communication structure. But if I was a parent, I would demand that I am allowed to view what’s on my child’s iPod on a regular basis.
And just to be talking about it. I think that they need to know that we trust them. They’re having normal conversations, and mostly they’re just really silly things about what happened at school or about One Direction or about a movie or whatever, but I believe that children need to know that adults are as firm as the walls in a building, and then when they push on the walls of the building, they stay firm.
So I do believe that children are okay with having some disagreements sometimes with adults. I think that they need to know that they can be a bit wacky and that the parent will still be conservative and consistent in looking after them for their wellbeing. So I think that parents really should be setting up a deal with their kids.
“I want you to be able to talk, I want you to be enjoying all of these great things, but we need to talk about what you’re talking about, and you need to let me be able to go onto your iPod sometimes and have a look at your conversations. Or you need to feel that what you’re saying, you would be comfortable if I saw. I don’t want to be in your business, and I don’t need to be a voyeur watching your conversations, but you are not licensed yet to be an adult, and that also means you have to be supported in a scaffolded kind of way as to how you go about communicating with people.”
SAM: It’s hard, though, Tim. I mean, every parent’s going to do something different, and it’s based on their own personal ethics as well.
TIM: Yes, that’s right. The technology is agnostic. The way it’s used I guess is what it comes down to. Behavior.
SAM: Absolutely. And you don’t want kids to think that you’re not trusting them, because we know it’s not about, really, whether we trust them or not; it’s about the dark forces out there and the uncontrollables. That’s what we’re concerned about.
A great teacher once gave me some advice, and she said “Just keep them talking. No matter what they’re talking about, just keep them talking. Whatever they’re enjoying, just keep them talking.” I think that’s what we’ve got to be able to remind our children, no matter how they’re talking, that they need to just keep talking.
TIM: Sound advice. Sam, thank you so much for coming today. You and I go back quite a way, and I haven’t seen you in awhile, is it’s great to see you again. Thank you so much again.
SAM: Thank you, Tim.
TIM: And listeners, we’ll see you next time.