When a student saw compromising images a classmate had posted of herself on Instagram she did what she had been taught to do: She alerted a teacher.
"We do a lot of talking to girls in the school to get them to understand what constitutes appropriate behaviour online," explains Jan Sullivan, vice-principal, student life, at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.
"The result is that the girls are now policing themselves. They have learned quickly what is good and what might be very bad to post about yourself on social media."
Essentially, the lesson is that what goes online stays online, accessed by anyone and everyone, including admissions officers, potential employers, parents and school principals.
It's why so many independent schools have put policies in place to ensure that students use social media in socially responsible ways.
"When it comes to social media it's a kids' world in many cases. They are setting up their own rules as they go along," Ms. Sullivan says. "Our responsibility as adults, be we parents or educators or both, is how to set them up for success, and this means training them in how to use social media in ways that help, not hurt, them."
BSS, a girls' school with approximately 900 students, regularly brings in social media pundits to drive that point home.
Guest speakers include members of Toronto Police Services and Michael Thompson, the New York Times best-selling author who has written extensively on the social lives of girls and boys, who lead workshops advising students on how to avoid the pitfalls of a life lived large on the Web.
"With teenagers, their lives are now all online with Snapchat and Instagram, more so than Facebook these days, the main vehicles they are using to communicate with each other," Ms. Sullivan observes. "I try to keep up, but I would not say I, or any other teacher on staff, is an expert, which is why we bring people into the school to empower the girls on how to manage their lives on social media."
Crescent School is an all-boys independent school where social media pundits also come to visit. But Nick Kovacs, who heads the Upper School of 350 boys, believes that peer-to-peer interaction delivers more tangible results.
"A boy in Grade 9 will listen more carefully and attentively to a boy in Grade 12 than to me," says Mr. Kovacs. "We have seen more strides made with peer-to-peer cross-age mentoring in opening up these lines of dialogue."
So what do boys talk about when they talk about social media?
Cyber-bullying is a top topic, followed by pornography. Connecting them is a single word, respect.
The school's Code of Character, a document all students must read and sign off on, is built around respect as a core value informing all social behaviours, both online and off.
"We define respect as treating all people with dignity and honour and extending that sentiment to their school, their surroundings and themselves. Each student is expected to eliminate all elements of disrespect from all forms of communication, be them face-to-face interactions, written exchanges or social media postings," Mr. Kovacs says. "We spell it out."
Used effectively, social media can help boost student success. Driving that point home is Heather Johnstone, head of guidance at Havergal College, an independent boarding and day school for girls from junior kindergarten through Grade 12, who shares a conversation she had recently with the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Oxford.
"She told me she looks at an applicant's Twitter account and will pay attention to tweets that share interesting articles in the news or opinions about current events as part of the selection process. The kids ought to know this," Ms. Johnstone says.
"What they do on social media can advance them forward more than hold them back. It's a powerful medium and students need to think of it as a way of putting themselves out there in a really positive way."
Havergal's social media policy emphasizes strong communication skills with a focus on university and career planning. Students participate in staged interview sessions in the classroom where their tweets and Instagram feeds could potentially serve as part of the mock screening process.
Teachers also engage students in conversations about online etiquette with regards to interactions with fellow students. Given that the students are young people navigating the pathways to adulthood, moods swing and feelings do get hurt when words are dashed off in a nanosecond of online pique.
"But is that bullying or is that bad behaviour?" queries Ms. Johnstone. Human behaviour, she allows, can be lousy at times and bullying is today a word that has become grossly overused. "That's not to discount that bullying isn't out there," she continues.
"But instead of acting out against bullying our approach is more pro-active. We want to teach girls how to be good citizens, and so we place a lot of emphasis on building strong communication skills across all platforms in hopes that when one of our students walks into an interview, they knock it out of the park."
Avoid 'text neck'
Being active on social media means that students are likely spending a good portion of their days hunched over a smartphone. However, constantly bending your head to look down can put up to 60 pounds of pressure on your spine. These extended periods of stress can lead to pain and strain in the neck, shoulders, arms and hands. To avoid "text neck," here are some tips from Katherine Tibor, a chiropractor with the Ontario Chiropractic Association:
- Take a break: Looking down is one thing, but even holding your phone or tablet for extended periods can strain the muscles in the shoulders, arms and fingers. Put down the device and let your arms rest at your sides every so often – they deserve a break.
- Follow the 20-20-20 rule: To reduce eye strain, follow the 20-20-20 rule by looking about 20 feet ahead (or further, if possible) for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. That’s easy to remember.
- Change it up: Feel like a statue after pulling that all-nighter? Try to switch it up by not remaining in the same position for longer than 30 minutes at a time. A short walk can do wonders.
- Aim higher: Reduce neck strain by bringing your phone or tablet closer to eye level. When reading or watching lectures on a tablet, let your arms rest by propping the device up against something. Your back and neck will thank you.
- Stretch it out: Here’s a simple exercise to stretch those neck muscles. Start by slowly turning your head toward your left shoulder and holding for five seconds. Do the same on your right side and you’re done. Visit the Ontario Chiropractic Association website for more stretching exercises.