Walk into the bedroom of any tween or teen, anywhere in the country, and chances are pretty good that you’ll find them scrolling social media. Networks like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok have become an integral part of the experience of growing up, and given that kids today are digital natives who have never known life without the internet, you’d be hard-pressed to find a middle-schooler without at least one social media account. Even younger children who aren’t old enough to have their own accounts can navigate their way through YouTube as if they were born knowing how (we’ve all seen a toddler find episodes of Sesame Street or Bluey like a boss).
Parents and experts alike, however, worry about the effects of social media’s constant stream of entertainment on child development. It’s the age of instant gratification, where content can be changed with a tap or a swipe, so how do kids learn to focus on one thing at a time? Should educators be adjusting their lessons to accommodate? “We’re in the attention economy now, with constant demands on focus. This is true for both adults and kids,” says Alyson Schafer, a parenting expert and counsellor in Toronto. “But the reality is, parents and teachers have to teach kids to differentiate between what’s productive material and what isn’t. It’s more important than ever for kids to learn the difference, and it’s on the adults in their lives to show them.”
With this in mind, it might seem like a no-brainer to just remove social media from the classroom—many schools have a no mobile device policy on school grounds—and stick to traditional teaching methods, but many educators believe there is an opportunity with the integration of social media to teach kids to be judicious about content. “Removing social media is not the answer for long-term growth and development. We work to build a strong understanding of what social media is and what it is capable of,” says Garth Nichols, vice-principal of strategic innovation at Havergal College in Toronto. (Havergal even has a course called Digital Wisdom for students in grades 5, 6, 7 and 8!) “It’s important for students to become responsible and ethical citizens who can navigate a digitally mediated world,” says Nichols. “Our teachers work with our students on the negative and positive impacts of social media, on everything from media literacy to physical health to personal branding.” Lee Vendetti at J. Addison in Markham, Ont., agrees: “Students [need to] learn to think critically, become smart consumers of products and information, recognize points of view and identify the role of media in our culture. At J. Addison, media literacy is taught in all classes.” Schafer also adds that the application of social media matters, that it can provide valuable opportunities to contribute and to connect when used in a meaningful way. “The quality of content students are engaging with matters,” says Schafer. “There can be time well-spent on tech and social media.”
Gamification is a great example of how technology and social platforms can enhance learning. Apps or programs like Mathletics and Prodigy allow kids to take on lessons and advance through online games, or to challenge classmates in academic activities. “Gamification can increase student participation, social interaction and self-guided exploration when combined with other methods of research,” says Dave Treherne, elementary principal at Unionville Montessori in Markham, Ont. “It can allow students to reflect on their work, set their own goals and track their progress. During competitive games, teachers can identify areas of weakness, group and individual skill levels and overall engagement with a topic of study.” Gamification as an education resource can be a way to engross kids and to boost their confidence, but it should be used as part of an integrated approach to engagement. “I really think that the right program used appropriately can have tremendous value,” says Schafer. “But we do need to be able to take kids off of technology and into the real world to make sure they experience boredom, imagination, interacting at a slower pace…that’s important, too.” The name of the game is balance (like all things!). The sweet spot integrates both old school and new school learning, to teach our kids to be effective problems solvers and critical thinkers.