Santa Barbara Middle School parents were recently given a window into their teenagers’ mysterious world of social networking. The findings of a newly released survey of SBMS students were both expected and alarming.
Parents were also alerted to a Facebook application called “Formspring,” which opens users to anonymous comments and is ripe for bullies.
“We took the survey to better understand how social networking is affecting the students both positively and negatively,” said John Seigel-Boettner, who teaches social studies and life science classes to sixth- and seventh-graders.
Seventy-five of 105 students at the independent middle school, which includes students in sixth through ninth grade, responded to the online survey.
“We want to try to steer them away from the parts that aren’t so good,” Seigel-Boettner said. “Not knowing all the places they go, it’s hard to steer.”
Seigel-Boettner and upper school English teacher Jesse Wooten distributed the 24-question survey to solicit feedback on social networking impacts on cyber-bullying and homework.
Parents attending the workshop to learn about the survey spoke of their concern about Facebook and Skype being serious distractions during homework time. Twenty-five percent of the students responded that they have a social networking site on most of the time during homework, while 42 percent said they never have it on during that time.
Among the comments from students were: “I’m so distracted by social networking but I still do it,” “I think I don’t do full work when Facebook is open. It takes me 10 times longer,” and “It is very helpful and a big distraction.”
The father of a ninth-grader said he found some comfort in that.
“I take some solace in the fact that they know it’s distracting,” he said. “It makes it easier to say, ‘It’s time to turn off the electronics.’”
Wooten said he believes the students are very aware of their actions.
“I think they genuinely want to do what’s good for them,” he said. “The more they think about it, the better choices they make.”
Wooten and parents shared that students are also using Facebook and Skype to get help with their homework from classmates and some teachers.
Of the responding students who have a Facebook account, 75 percent are “friends” with their parents, meaning they communicate with each other on the social network. Most of the parents in attendance said it gave them a better window into their children’s world. One mom said she goes on Facebook during homework hours to ensure her daughter is off the network.
Another mom said it’s hard to police something so addictive.
“It’s part of the learning process, and my daughter will admit that she’s learning the hard way,” she said.
In fact, nearly 70 percent of the students polled said they feel social networking sites are addictive, yet only 24 percent said they are addicted.
In the computer world of cyber-bullying, nearly half the students said they’ve seen it or experienced it. Much of what they’ve witnessed is on the Facebook application “Formspring.” Eighty percent of the students polled said for good reason that they don’t have a Formspring account.
Student comments included: “I witnessed bullying but I know that’s part of it,” “I had it for a while but it made me really upset,” and “I saw someone in my class being really harassed and read things I didn’t want to know.”
Wooten said anonymity produces bullying and mean behavior.
“They don’t have to take responsibility for what they are saying,” he said. “It’s the place where it happens because it’s completely anonymous.”
Parents seeking more control over the Internet world heard from others in the audience about free Internet filter software called K9 Web Protection. Parents said they can block Facebook during prime homework hours. One parent said the only social network account it didn’t work on was Skype.
Seigel-Boettner said he understands the parental anxiety.
“I just keep hearing these voices yelling, ‘Shut it down, close it down, unplug,’ but there is too much good stuff out there,” he said.
A parent who works for a local foundation said Facebook for her is essential. She uses its networking features to sell out public events, carry out grass-roots fundraising, organize community service and even furnish apartments for families.
Head of School Brian McWilliams said the survey is about awareness and starting a conversation.
“The whole system here at middle school is to better understand your children so we can be better educators,” he said. “To be better teachers, we need to relate to them.”
— Larry Good is a Santa Barbara Middle School parent.