Schools need to teach social media skills, and fast

I’ve been fascinated and increasingly troubled by the steady stream of faculty, students and staff in colleges and universities who have blown up their careers in social media. It’s possible these episodes will not create lasting harm in all cases, but for many of these individuals the experience is potentially life-changing. I also suspect that the majority of these episodes are stemming from naïveté about how overwhelming the response can be when you wander into the path of an online mob.

To list just a few recent examples:

Of course students find endless ways to get in trouble online. For example, national media covered the University of Central Florida student who graded his ex-girlfriend’s apology note on Twitter. He was initially suspended from the school and then reinstated. Students have also called football players by a racial slur on Snapchat, posted inappropriate locker room photos on social media, and had offers of admission revoked because of sexually explicit Facebook content.

Jabari Dean, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, became the extreme poster child for internet disaster. He posted an online threat that is now the subject of an FBI video campaign called “Think before you post.” Jabari said he was venting about police violence, but the threat was taken seriously enough to shut down the University of Chicago campus. “People took it as a terrorist threat. The University got shut down. I got arrested by the FBI, and now I don’t know what my future looks like,” Dean says in the video. “I search my name on the web almost every day and look at the stuff. It’s not going away. Think before you post.”

The issues here are complex, encompassing the seriousness with which perceived threats of violence are taken, academic freedom and free expression, online bullying, campus climate, and the need for higher education to model what civil discourse looks like. Many scholars and administrators, as well as academic societies, are attempting to address these serious concerns.

In addition, K-12 schools, colleges and universities need to recognize that social media has completely changed the nature of informal communication and discourse in the 21st century. What someone used to say in passing to a colleague or a small group of friends is now memorialized online via Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and numerous emerging channels. Comments made to a small group of followers on social media are regularly copied and pasted to a larger group and can quickly go viral. Even remarks made privately offline in the classroom or in a social setting can be videotaped and distributed via social media.

College athletics departments were among the first to recognize the risks of social media for their students, including the potential for NCAA violations. Athletics programs (like this one at Colgate) now routinely instruct student athletes on the risks of social media and what usage is appropriate.

Social media workshops are also cropping up in pockets for targeted groups, such as in career workshops for PhD students and post-doctoral fellows. But few campuses, if any, have instituted a comprehensive program for their students, much less for faculty and staff. It seems to me there is both an opportunity and an imperative for schools at all levels to teach about the risks, rewards and responsibilities of social media use. Some natural homes for this might be during student and new faculty orientation, training for student organization leaders, first-year seminars, residence life programming, student and young faculty career development programs, and teaching and learning centers.

I’m sure some examples of great programs exist, but I was not able to find them in my online searches. If you are aware of something, please share it and I will update this blog post with examples.

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