It used to be that the cattiness of junior high and high school girls was somewhat limited to hallway smirks, cutting comments, and the indomitable rolling of the eyes. In less than a decade, the new mean has been taken online. Today, social networking sites such as Ask.fm, Formspring, Facebook and Tumblr can provide fodder for an underlying culture of manipulation and meanness.
It might be tolerable if online drama only played out after school. Now, the already complex dynamics of girls’ friendships are even more complicated by increased technology in the classroom.
“I usually update my Tumblr account during my third period math class,” one high school senior recently told me with an air of adolescent defiance. Her private school had recently implemented a program to give each student an iPad. Although the school tried to block access to sites like Facebook and YouTube, students quickly found ways to outmaneuver the restrictions.
Those who log into Facebook before coming to school, for instance, can maintain access throughout the day simply by refreshing the page. Under the guise of note-taking, students routinely use online sites as classroom diversions.
As technology becomes an even more integral part of the classroom learning experience, online interactions will more aggressively contribute to overall school climate.
According to 2010 data from the U.S. Department of Education, teachers at public schools reported that 69% of their students use computers during class most or some of the time. Internet connection was available for 96% of computers brought into classrooms.
Research suggests that males tend to focus more of their online efforts on gaming, while females tend to spend more online time socializing. Many girls now find their interpersonal relationships are now even more intertwined with their academic experiences. Unlike whispers in the hallway or notes passed in the middle of class, rumors online leave digital traces, and the potential to go viral can cause intense panic and rash decision-making.
School social networking puts even greater pressure on girls’ mental health and overall wellness. The statistics are overwhelmingly not in girls’ favor: girls are twice as likely than boys to be bullied electronically, and perceptions of school climate and culture can directly impact their overall wellness.
Researchers at the University of South Florida found that girls who had negative perceptions of
school climate were far more likely to also have greater self-reported mental health issues. For boys, there was not nearly as strong of a correlation.
Proponents of classroom online learning highlight the potential for more personalized learning experiences. Even so, potential social media distractions can be too much for students to self-regulate, and the fear of missing out often creates another layer of social anxiety in the classroom.
If we really want to create a healthier and safer school climate, we need to fully recognize and address the many ways information and conversations flows through our school walls, hallways and classroom communities, and proactively help students develop positive coping strategies if something goes digitally awry. Students today are fumbling through the ultimate paradox - the same tools needed to complete school assignments also provide them with an outlet for socialization and potential distraction from getting work done. As it stands, increased classroom Internet access can potentially detract from our overall education and wellness hopes for our children, and neglecting the potential consequences could bring devastating implications for our youngest and most impressionable generation.
A version of this blog post appeared in the May 27, 2013 edition of the San Jose Mercury News.