Tackling Tough Social Media Conversations: 3 Common Issues and How To Address Them
January 30, 2024, 15:11
Social media and the mobile devices used to access those apps have a pervasive pull on adolescents and teens, even when they’re supposed to be studying or socializing “IRL” at school. As a result, educators may be the first to notice social media- and device-related issues that need to be addressed with caregivers. Those can be tough conversations — it’s easy to feel as though addressing a student’s social media and device use could feel out of bounds.
However, when a situation is affecting students’ physical or mental wellness, it becomes vital for an empathetic educator to start a dialogue with their family. In any conversation, take care to open by expressing concern (rather than blame or criticism), underscore the reasons social media can be beneficial to youth and emphasize your desire to work on solutions together. Listening is critical.
Here are three potentially sticky situations involving social media and devices for which you might want to initiate this dialogue, along with ideas for how to frame the conversation.
Note: Schools and districts likely have their own policies for how to handle student issues involving social media and devices. We intend for these examples to provide additional best practices to validate or enhance your own approach.
Situation 1: You have an issue with a student’s screen time or device usage during school.
Digital devices can be useful for classroom instruction, allowing students to easily access supplemental information and seek diverse voices. But using the device extensively or for reasons unrelated to learning can be disruptive to others and detrimental to a student’s academic progress. It’s hard to blame them for being distracted: Teens in one study received
a median of 237 notifications daily from apps on their phones, with one-quarter of those arriving during the school day.
However, just because an influx of notifications during school is common doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting students’ academic progress. Those updates can distract students from their work and impact their learning progress. Depending on the student, you may feel compelled to reach out to their family to share your concerns. Consider these steps:
Start by sharing specific instances involving the student and excessive screen time.
Highlight examples of how their learning appears to be impacted, such as that their grades have slipped or they are no longer actively participating in class discussions.
Propose solutions, such as a consequence if the student doesn’t stow their device when instructed.
Request caregivers’ assistance in urging cooperation.
Situation 2: You’re concerned a student is being bullied online.
Many educators have noticed an alarming increase in bullying. Around 40% of youth said they were bullied on school property in the past year, according to
one recent report, with about half that number saying they were bullied online. Particularly troubling is the fact that 55% of those who were bullied online didn’t tell an adult.
As an educator with a keen eye on the school landscape, you may become alerted to the fact that cyberbullying is happening to one of your students. A school or district’s response to cyberbullying may include the following steps:
Schedule a private meeting to express your concern and assure confidentiality.
Share with caregivers details about the incident and the school’s response, without identifying the other students involved.
If the behavior is ongoing, encourage the parents to save screenshots of cyberbullying messages and block the bully on social media platforms and via email and text.
Encourage caregivers to talk with their child about cyberbullying and watch for signs that their mental health has been impacted. (
Sharing a story like this could be the push caregivers need if they are reticent to do so.) Be aware of local, state and federal
laws that apply to cyberbullying, and be mindful that online bullying could be driven by a child’s race, ethnicity, religion, disability or other status protected under civil rights laws.
Situation 3: You believe a student is using their device to cheat.
Cheating isn’t a new phenomenon, but the explosion of
generative AI tools like ChatGPT has made doing so easier. Nearly 60% of students ages 12 to 18 have used ChatGPT, including 38% who say they have used it for a school assignment without their teacher's permission, according to a May 2023 survey. That’s not to say the tool can’t be useful for some learning activities, which is why educators must be clear on when it’s acceptable to use AI tools and when it’s not.
The tricky part about AI-generated content is that it can be hard to confirm its veracity. Checking to ensure the work is a student’s own isn’t as simple as running the text through a plagiarism checker.
If you are concerned a student may be using their device to cheat — whether via AI or other communication tools — it may be time to contact their family. Steps may include:
Share the evidence or observations that have led you to this conclusion and express your concern.
Discuss other learning issues you might be seeing. Sometimes a student will cheat because they have an undiagnosed or unsupported learning disability or struggle with executive function. Listen actively and seek the family’s perspective.
Discuss related school policies and potential consequences.
Share your own best practices for how caregivers can supervise school work and help instill good habits and a commitment to academic integrity.
Get your facts together, take a deep breath and have the tough conversation
While addressing these social media- and device-related issues is challenging, engaging families and initiating conversations with caregivers can be a powerful way to connect and build community. The good news is your input is likely to be welcome:
45% of parents in one study said they have turned to teachers for advice or information about screen time.
For more advice on how to proactively talk with caregivers about kids and social media, download our new playbook, “
How To Talk With Caregivers About Kids and Social Media,” and visit our Mental Health Resource Center.