Social Media: A Proactive Approach
In March of 2018, several nine- and ten-year-old girls were interacting in the “House Party” app chat room with teenage boys. That interaction led to the threat made against one of the elementary schools in our district. As the rumors began to fly, students were crying in the cafeteria, parents were scared, and police were investigating. As is usually the case, the threat was not real, but this incident made me realize that something needed to be done.
My response was a letter to the community asking parents to monitor their children’s use of social media. I will admit that my frustration with this issue got the better of me and the letter was more “forceful” than the usual typical superintendent communication. I expected a significant pushback on Facebook as well as multiple emails challenging my “right” to tell parents how to raise their children. Surprisingly, the discussion on Facebook was almost 100% supportive and I have never received as many positive emails in my 12 years as Superintendent. It culminated in a positive article in the Asbury Park Press. The article ended with the question “what will you do now?”
That question led to the concept of the Pledge. Last year, I presented at each of the Back to School Nights with Mrs. Cindy Cimino, Supervisor of Pupil Personnel Services and District Coordinator for HIB, on the risks of social media. At the end of the presentation, we asked parents to consider keeping their children off inappropriate social media until they reach the age of 13 and sign a pledge to do so. Approximately 70% of our third-grade parents signed that pledge. This year, I will again be attending Back to School Nights with Mrs. Cindy Cimino to ask our third-grade parents to sign the pledge. Our fourth-grade students will be discussing the impact of the pledge in class and are going to be asked to sign it themselves before bringing it home for their parents to sign again.
You might wonder has it made a difference. While we don’t have any hard data, Mrs. Cimino’s impression is that social media was not involved in as many HIB investigations in the earlier grades as in previous years. Parents have said that they feel more empowered and that the pledge has helped them say no when their child requests to have access to a certain app. And a child when faced with peer pressure can say “I am not allowed; my mom signed the pledge.”
While I believe everyone agrees that young children should not be on certain forms of social media, especially those where they are exposing them to teenagers and adults, we are clearly losing the battle when it comes to controlling their access. Our hope in Manalapan-Englishtown is, at least in the elementary grades, that the norm of the culture will become that unrestricted social media is not for the young children. And if there is an incident, when a parent asks what the school is going to do about it, our first response will be, “Did you sign the district’s social media pledge?”