By Ana Homayoun
These days, prom season seems to be on steroids.
Each spring, high school girls search for the perfect prom dress. Instead of debuting it on prom night, girls create Facebook “prom dress page” groups to avoid the potential embarrassment of discovering someone else is wearing the same dress on prom night. The dress choices elicit a range of responses from supportive to just plain mean. Body image issues surface. It doesn’t take long for the groups to morph into nuanced, drama-filled competitions filled with exclusionary tactics (“Please don’t add any freshman or sophomores unless you know they are being asked!”) and manipulations that would make politicians squirm.
It might be tolerable if online drama only played out after school. Now, the already complex dynamics of girls’ friendships are even more complicated by increased technology in the classroom.
“I usually update my Tumblr account during my third-period math class,” one high school senior recently told me with an air of adolescent defiance. Her private school had recently given each student an iPad. Although the school tried to block access to sites like Facebook and YouTube, students found ways to outmaneuver the restrictions.
Those who log into Facebook before coming to school, for instance, can maintain access throughout the day by refreshing the page. Under the guise of note-taking, students routinely use online sites as classroom diversions.
As technology becomes an even more integral part of classroom learning, online interactions will more aggressively contribute to the overall school climate.
According to 2010 data from the U.S. Department of Education, public school teachers reported that 69 percent of their students use computers during class most or some of the time. Internet connection was available for 96 percent of computers brought into classrooms.
Research suggests that males tend to focus more of their online efforts on gaming, while females tend to spend more time socializing. Many girls now find their interpersonal relationships are even more intertwined with their academic experiences. Unlike whispers in the hallway or notes passed in the middle of class, rumors online leave digital traces, and the potential to go viral can cause intense panic and rash decision-making.
School social networking puts even greater pressure on girls’ mental health. The statistics are overwhelmingly not in girls’ favor: Girls are twice as likely to be bullied electronically, and perceptions of school climate and culture can directly affect their overall wellness.
Researchers at the University of South Florida found that girls who had negative perceptions of school climate were far more likely also to have greater self-reported mental health issues.
Proponents of classroom online learning highlight the potential for more personalized learning experiences. Even so, social media distractions can be too much for students to self-regulate, and the fear of missing out often creates another layer of social anxiety in the classroom.
If we really want to create a healthier and safer school climate, we need to fully recognize and address the many ways information and conversations flow through school walls, hallways and classroom communities. We need to proactively help students develop positive coping strategies if something goes digitally awry.
Students are fumbling through the ultimate paradox — the same tools needed to complete school assignments also provide them with an outlet for socialization and potential distraction from getting work done. As it stands, increased classroom Internet access can potentially detract from our overall education and wellness hopes for our children, and neglecting the potential consequences could bring devastating implications for our youngest and most impressionable students.
Unlike prom night, the effects are 24/7.
Ana Homayoun, founder of Los Altos-based Green Ivy Educational Consulting, is an expert on the intersection of technology, learning and social media and the author most recently of “The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life.” Follow her @anahomayoun. She wrote this for this newspaper.