Issues surrounding social media have school officials running for cover as high school students around the country have made it the conversational norm. Face-to-face conversations are infrequent and phone conversations are almost non-existent. Confrontations have also moved from face-to-face to social media, where emotions erupt and attract an audience that incites and promotes more subversive behavior.
Does this sound familiar? School and athletic administrators, coaches and teachers are all reacting to this social media revolution. Programs are being offered in virtually all schools to discuss the pitfalls and dangers of social media. Is the behavior changing?
Schools bring in experts – perhaps someone from law enforcement or the department of justice – to discuss the legal issues associated with bullying and how rampant it is through social media. These programs stress that most people don’t mean a great deal of harm by what they post, but there have been numerous instances of a suicide stemming from social media bullying. These stories have become more and more prevalent, which raises the question: Is the social media warning program effective?
Administrators cannot simply ignore the issue. Colleges and universities have taken a proactive approach, conducting sessions with their student-athletes centered on social media responsibility. This kind of programming can have a significant impact on the athlete who is in the spotlight nationally and has a growing list of followers from both fans and national media. Although high school athletes may not be in the national spotlight like a Heisman Trophy candidate who must continually monitor his online image, what if the high school administrator could connect with the student-athletes in a way that promoted social media in a positive way?
Athletic administrators and coaches should embrace social media. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are great tools to report scores and share pictures of events to help generate enthusiasm (and attendance). These media are also great for promoting the benefits of high school sports – to laud the sportsmanship, selflessness and other character traits that student-athletes demonstrate and coaches work so hard to instill.
Social media is cheaper than traditional media and is also far more effective. Entire markets have been changed and millions of dollars are made with social media every day. School officials, however, are reluctant to unleash the reins of something so powerful because of the perceived problems. It is important, therefore, to have a clear and concise plan with objectives for social media use. The following is a basic outline that could be used:
1. Social media as a means for distributing sports scores. Often, scores are reported only to the local paper and television stations. Additional regional coverage can be scarce. Social media enables information dissemination at a lightning pace. Tagging other media outlets in posts can get statewide coverage in seconds. In addition, parents and fans no longer want to wait until the 11 p.m. news or tomorrow’s paper. Schools are obligated to get news out faster or be left behind and have their media distribution be regarded as irrelevant.
2. Examples of the core values can be distributed through social media. Schools should embrace all opportunities to tout successes and highlight the benefits of their programs. Stories about sportsmanship are easily found on YouTube. Where do these begin? Live at the event with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Athletic administrators are often called upon to defend the monies spent on athletics. When they are, they turn to stories of core value successes: the athlete who helped an injured competitor rather than winning a race or the team that helped an opponent around the bases after a home run and a torn ACL to name a few of the popular examples from YouTube. Every school has its own stories, but few seem to be chronicling them. Social media allows administrators and coaches to highlight the value of what they do every day.
3. Coaches can collect rosters with social media handles for all student-athletes. This may seem controversial. Students often want to keep their social media separate from adults; however, this is part of the problem as accountability is critical. Coaches preach that team members have to hold each other accountable and serve as role models for the younger participants. In order to create an environment of accountability, collecting this information is a first step.
The pitfall is that administrators and coaches cannot become the social media police. Those responsible for monitoring should not react to every comment made on social media. However, they should be in constant conversation with all student-athletes about the image they are portraying. One-on-one interaction may also be necessary to correct specific behaviors. Failure to be engaged diminishes the coaches’ and athletic directors’ ability to influence social media use.
4. Student-athletes should be used by name as often as possible in social media. The key is to make the athlete feel honored. How does that happen? Most teenagers are desperately seeking attention.
Posting a student’s name or tagging him or her in a post or picture makes the student feel validated and proud. By doing this often, athletes may generate new followers. This becomes a new currency for young people tied to self-esteem and self-worth. For the students, it also underscores how public they really are and how critical it is to maintain a positive online image.
This concept could even be taken as far as publishing Twitter handles on rosters for distribution at athletic events and running contests encouraging spectators to tag players in pictures and posts.
The bottom line is that a social media plan and its integration into a coaching model is a must for teaching young people not just about the dangers of social media, but how to avoid them. All too often, school officials, coaches, athletic administrators and parents are focusing on what the child should not be doing, but little is done to teach and model appropriate behavior with respect to social media.
Is it because adults are so far behind the student? Possibly. Get involved. Start somewhere. The problem can no longer be ignored and playing defense is not working.
Jeff Morris is the associate director and director of interscholastic athletics at Gray Stone Day School in Misenheimer, North Carolina. He also serves on the National Faculty for technology courses with the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA). Morris is a Certified Athletic Administrator (CAA) with the NIAAA and a Certified Interscholastic Coach (CIC) with the NFHS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.