Social media & the school curriculum. Don’t ask.fm why.


Yesterday, ask.fm the Latvian based social media Q&A website responded to ongoing criticism following online bullying allegations. The website founded by brothers Ilya and Mark Terbin in 2010, has said it will hire more staff, create a bullying-harassment category of complaint and make the ability to opt-out of anonymous questions more obvious to users, and in an initiative to stem the use of the website by anonymous users, they will offer users to the site more features or incentives if they register their details.

Ask.fm has been subjected to immense scrutiny particularly in Ireland and the UK where at least six teenagers who have taken their own lives have been found to have been bullied or harassed on the website. The promised changes to policy are a welcome progression – comfort mostly to the parents of the teenage audience of over 60 million, a third of who come to ask.fm directly from using Facebook, illustrating how integral the Latvian site is to online social activity.

Today I spoke with Will Faulkner on MIdlands Radio on the topic of the changes at ask.fm’ and also on the Slane photos incident which sparked a quick reaction from Facebook and Twitter to prevent access to photos of a 17 year old girl, of an explicit nature that were retweeted or posted creating a viral incident in a matter of hours. I’ve written at length recently about internet trolls following the harassment of Caroline Criado-Perez, and in doing so reflected at length on my own experience twenty years ago with online chat, forums and digital communities. Today I suggested on Midlands Today that the answer, or at least the start of an answer may lie in our school systems. In July this year an Irish parliament cross-party group published a report that concluded that the mental health of Irish teenagers may be detrimentally affected by social media websites.

“The Committee recommends that more emphasis be placed on educating parents, teachers and children on how to safely use social media. For children, this might incorporate peer-to-peer learning whereby children mentor their peers. It is the Committee‘s view that advice and technical support should come from the industry. The SPHE curriculum may also be revised to incorporate this.”

— Recommendation 8 : Addressing the Growth of Social Media and tackling Cyberbullying, 2013

This recommendation may be the most important driver for positive change yet. I believe the school curriculum needs social media. Specifically, modules on managing your digital life to help pre-teen and older students understand what’s acceptable to and from them, as digital natives. Social media is a critical part of twenty-first century socialisation and online activity, association and interaction has a direct effect on students emotional well-being.

In the US state of Illinois earlier this summer, District 109 Director of Student Services Jenell Mroz said that a committee was looking at implementing a framework that would incorporate education on social media websites Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in to the classroom. Lisa Nielsen, who writes the excellent Innovative Educator blog, wrote in March 2010 on why social media curriculum is crucial in schools and she makes the point that with a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ approach from schools:

….just as in the real world, without any adult supervision, students could be at risk and are existing without models for appropriate behavior.

In the UK pilot schemes in Cambridge, Shropshire and in Wales a scheme run by the Office of the Information Commissioner look to be inspiring action across the country. A good start – that every country in the world should embrace, essentially a ‘digital civics’ module. Rather than bodies like the Information Commissioner or the equivalent in other countries running it as a program, it really needs to be an integral part of the curriculum, and I’d suggest funding should be requested from companies like ask.fm, Twitter, FaceBook and Google.

Technology companies like ask.fm do have a responsibility; you cannot create a global social media website that facilitates anonymous users berating and bullying each other and look the other way. Parents also, cannot look the other way and in the same way they may want to know who their teenager is meeting at 8pm on a dark November evening they should also be conscious of what’s passing through the wi-fi from behind that bedroom door. Common courtesy and decency is welcomed and encouraged by parents and teachers, and we need the same online from the digital natives of today, and the best place to teach them the basics of how to be decent digital citizens is where we teach them the basics of everything else.

External links and references

  1.  Cyberbullying suicides: What will it take to have Ask.fm shut down : Joe Shute : The Daily Telegraph
  2. Chicago Tribune : Social Emotional Curriculum
  3. Lisa Nielsen : The Innovative Educator on Social Media Curriculum
  4. Ask.fm revise policies & practice to stem bullying : BBC News
  5. Why do internet trolls do what they do? : redcert.com
  6. Children’s mental health under threat from cyber-bullying : Independent.ie
Andy O'Donoghue

Andy O'Donoghue talks about technology, some say, too much.