by Priscilla Warren
Are your students on Facebook? Chances are, the answer is yes. As one of the most dominant social networking sites available, Facebook has become an online ‘hang out’ for the youth of today to socialise with friends, meet new people, share photos or website links and post information about their lives.
With this form of ‘connecting’ so popular with youth, how does it impact on how young people see themselves? And how can we as educators, mitigate the risks related to online social networking? An Auckland University study looked into the online experiences of five high achieving, teenage, female student leaders in senior high schools and how their interaction with others on Facebook affected their behaviours and choices made.
First, let’s take a brief look at the four key tensions identified in this 2013 study, as having had an effect and influence on the participants lives. Then, we will look at what can be gleaned from this study to assist educators in helping the general student population in schools today.
1. Real versus Airbrushed
Checking out someone’s profile to gauge their personality was common place and therefore lifted the significance of one’s online image. Living in front of this ‘invisible audience’ brought with it a conflict of interest though, in that the participants expressed their desire to ‘be real’ was compromised by the need to ‘appear perfect’ by standards set by both their peer group as well as the image/brand that was associated with being a student leader at school.
The impact of being both a student leader and a Facebook user exacerbated the micro-celebrity phenomenon where these young leaders were raised to icon status, shown through the significant increase in friend requests from mostly younger students at the school. This knowledge of giving other students the ability to ‘watch’ their chosen student leader ‘celebrity’ online, instead of interacting with them, was of concern to some student leaders. While some felt at ease to reject such friend requests, others felt pressured to ‘oblige’ due to their leadership role.
The fear of being judged online created the need for careful online image management. Enhancing one’s own image on Facebook through flattering photographs, ‘exciting’ personal updates and positive comments was tempered by the need to be ‘seen’ by others in an equally flattering way on the off-chance that other people’s photographs or comments regarding them would later be posted online. In the words of one of the student leader’s,
“I guess people want to show the most appealing and attractive version of themselves … So some people try to emphasise their intelligence, some people try to emphasise their looks” (Price, Wardman, Bruce & Millward, 2013, p.23).
2. Public Broadcasting versus Private Relationships
The most popular use of Facebook by these student leaders were “chat, private messaging, newsfeed browsing, commenting, communication with groups and posting photographs or links” (p.24). The choice of being able to interact with or just observe others had both a positive impact in feeling connected to others but also a tension in that comparisons became commonplace between their own lives and others.
Within their large networks, the study showed a preference for these young participants to communicate with only a few people and showed their disfavour for the vast amount of exposure to unwanted posts. The benefit of Facebook for creating deeper, more rewarding connections was at odds with the difficulty found in achieving that same level of ease and friendship in face-to-face interactions. As one participant explained,
“it can help you talk to people, sometimes it can backfire ’cause then you see them in person and you can’t really talk to them, like you would on Facebook” (p.25).
3. My Time for Them versus My Time for Me
Maintaining a balance between availability to others online and personal space to ‘tune out’ was a balancing act for all participants in this study. The value placed upon being connected to friends and family online was shown through the amount of time invested in keeping up to date with what was happening in other people’s lives. Daily visits to Facebook were common, either through blocks of time devoted to Facebook or having a constant connection to Facebook while multi-tasking online.
An ‘invasion’ of both personal time, privacy and ownership of one’s life was experienced in the amount of time spent online viewing and updating sites, being exposed to unwanted information and having other people share information about them online. This tension was expressed through one participant who said,
“When I go away… and I don’t have Facebook, I actually start to feel anxious about what I’ve missed. Like, maybe someone’s messaged me something important or what if someone’s posted something on my wall that I don’t want other people to see?… I feel so disappointed in myself that I’ve let social networking affect me in such a way… I was happier without it. It was less complicated” (p.28).
4. Viewing Life versus Living Life
The positive feeling of being connected to others by looking through a window into their lives was offset by the disenchantment that arose through viewing life as a spectator, rather than living it. Feelings of emptiness and isolation were experienced as comparisons evolved between their own online representation of life and others. Insecurities were surfaced as seen through comments made by different student leaders:
“Is this all I’ve got right now, you know? I could be out socialising properly, not on a computer.”
“Say it’s a Friday night or a Saturday night and I’m stuck at home… and you go on Facebook, I guess that’s the kind of empty feeling I’m talking about.”
“Before Facebook, I never used to feel insecure about… just staying at home and reading on a Saturday night but now, when I log in on a Sunday morning, there’s all these pictures of… parties and stuff. And I’m like, ‘Oh man! I stayed at home. I’m such a loser.” (p.27).
Thoughts for Educators
This study focused on high-profile, female student leaders within school and so the recommendations made later in that study dealt specifically in helping future student leaders navigate the ‘tricky waters’ of Facebook.
So, from this study, what implications arise for educators to consider, when dealing with students who may be adversely affected by their Facebook user habits?
1. Risks and Opportunities
There are many positive benefits in social networking sites like Facebook: keeping in contact with family and friends, developing deeper relationships, exploring one’s own ideas and identity and ‘belonging’ to groups that meet one’s social and emotional needs. However, the risks that accompany such a tool must also be discussed, such as online bullying, online predators and social media addiction. By opening up dialogue with students, they are allowed the space to critically explore and reflect on their own use of Facebook, allowing them to opportunity to solve their own problems.
2. Healthy Personal Boundaries
Being so ‘hyper-connected’ to one’s friends brings with it certain problems. Conformity to what is ‘seen publicly’ as the ‘ideal stereotype’ of females and males validates their identity of what it means to be a certain gender and what makes them ‘fit’ into their peer group and society as a whole. Looking to others for approval is not new, but knowing where one’s own personal property line is, becomes more difficult when the thoughts and voices of ‘others’ blurs the boundaries between oneself and the group.
Having clear boundaries is essential to a healthy, balanced life. This would include:
- Physical Boundaries that determine how much time we consider is a ‘reasonable’ time to ‘live’ online.
- Mental Boundaries that give us the freedom and value to our own thoughts and opinions, apart from our friends and groups online.
- Emotional Boundaries that help us deal with our own emotions and disengage us from our invisible audience in the public sphere.
3. Privacy Issues
The benefits and practical use of privacy settings within Facebook can alleviate much of the frustrations associated with unwanted posts and attention.
4. School as a Safeguard
Having ‘safe’ people to talk to at school about issues that may have arisen online is necessary so that students do not feel isolated and ‘victimized’. These ‘safe’ people can include teachers, counsellors or students leaders. School policy is a necessity in this current media world to outline what steps need to be taken if online boundaries have been crossed.
5. Online Etiquette
How we communicate online with others in an appropriate, considerate manner is just as important as how we interact with people offline. The disconnection felt when ‘hammering’ another person online, either intentionally or not, must be addressed and debated among students, so that what is considered inappropriate can be addressed either through personal intervention or by reporting it. Issues such at citizenship, respect and empathy for others are all important areas that can be discussed.
6. Personal Interactions Online and Offline
One of the interesting findings in this study was the preference of these teenage students to communicate online as opposed to other more traditional ways such as using the telephone or through face-to-face contact. Being able to relate to others, away from the computer, is a vital skill in our social world. Building relationships offline is an important area to address, so that life can be ‘lived’ rather than just ‘viewed’.
7. Critical Media Literacy Education
The importance of teaching our students how to ‘survive and thrive’ in a media driven society is one that cannot be denied. Allowing students to engage with, critically analyse and produce media will enable them to use such tools as Facebook in a way that will positively affect their lives. Unit plans such as Digital Footprints, Media Representations and Understanding Media Audiences are all great examples of how to incorporate the ideas above into the classroom.
This list begins but does not exhaust the possible uses this study has in enlightening our perception of what it means to be a ‘connected’ youth on Facebook. I invite you to comment below for your view on ‘Facebook and Young People’.
Price, E., Wardman, J., Bruce, T., & Millward, P. (2013). The tension of attention: What it means to be a gifted and talented girl in a social media-saturated world. Australasian Journal of Gifted Education, 22(2), p.18-31.
Picture attributed to: Designed by Freepik