High school gossip and bullying used to remain relatively confined to scrawled insults on bathroom stalls, snotty taunts and comments and notes passed during class. Not any more.
Today's social networking sites can be valuable tools but also are venues for clique warfare and can pose problems for students in the realms of personal privacy and reputation.
"Back in the day, we used a slam book, but the Internet is not just restricted to your group of friends," says Ashley Hasselman, director of public relations, marketing and communications for De La Salle High School.
Facebook wall posts and Twitter updates are the "slam books" today's high school students use. Unlike a notebook of unkind remarks left in someone's locker, however, what's posted on these sites — which have become increasingly public — have the potential to reach far beyond classroom cliques.
"You don't have to look much farther than the news to know that (students) run into problems when they fail to understand the Internet is both immediate and public," says Roger Hibbert, communications manager at Isidore Newman School.
High school administrators are aware of these issues, but they also are seizing the opportunity to include social networking sites and other forms of technology in the classroom to better relate to students.
Sister Camille Anne Campbell, principal of Mount Carmel Academy, says the school became aware of the potential problems of social networking about six years ago, when students started reporting instances of cyber bullying.
"It's the new disembodied discourse the telephone used to be," she says. "It's easy (for it) to become (a place for) bullying because you don't see the hurt in the eyes, and you don't see the tears."
The all-girls Catholic high school doesn't have a specific policy prohibiting social media, but bullying in any form is not allowed, she says. Other schools handle social media similarly, placing their use under the purview of handbook policies on behavior, since social media has become a regular form of communication for students, but De La Salle is writing a policy specifically addressing the use of social media.
"We're trying to let the students express themselves, but we are also making sure the school is represented in the best way," Hasselman says.
The policy touches on another problem students encounter online: protecting their reputation and that of their schools. Newman students are taught to manifest the school's values of honesty, kindness, respect and responsibility in life, Hibbert says, and the same goes with their online personas, which is why the school stresses that what is posted on the Internet has immediate, and often permanent, effects. Hasselman echoes the sentiment: "It's not like sending an email to your friends."
To keep parents informed about the dangers to which teen Internet users are susceptible, the schools offer programs featuring presentations from experts. Mount Carmel has hosted presentations from FBI representatives, and a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's office has spoken to parents of Newman students. Newman also has a committee charged with keeping the school updated on the rapidly changing face of social media, but ultimately, Hibbert says, the key to safely navigating the Internet lies with teens' decisions.
"In many families, the children are experts in technology, so it is impossible for parents to always know what their children are doing online," he says. "So the better advice would be to talk to your children and encourage them to act responsibly and safely, to make smart choices wherever they are."
Although social media use can pose some dangers to students, sites like Facebook have become an integral part of people's lives.
"We do realize social networking is where it's going to be," Campbell says. "It's where people find each other."
Instead of focusing on social networking as a distraction or a danger, these schools are using the tools to engage students. Student Council members at De La Salle are in charge of maintaining a Facebook page students can check to keep up to date on school events such as football games, pep rallies and special "dress-down" days. The site is mostly shared among students, but eventually the coed Catholic high school wants to have a Facebook page geared more for the public.
"I definitely think Facebook has a place," Hasselman says. "What's happening in corporate America in how they're utilizing Facebook is starting to trickle down to school use." Newman also has Facebook and Twitter pages to keep students and the community updated about school events.
At Mount Carmel, teachers use blogs and Wikis (a website that allows various users in different locations to easily add and edit content) in the classroom to relate to students as well as teach them how to use the Internet in the most constructive way.
"One of the big challenges is to teach students to evaluate Internet resources," Campbell says. "How do you determine if this is legitimate or truthful or some kind of bogus thing?"
Newman uses Ning.com, a website that allows users to create custom social networks, in the classroom to facilitate discussion and collaboration among students. The website includes all the typical features of social networking sites — such as video, photo and chatting features all in one place — but it provides a more restricted network for safety and a smaller focus.
"It really takes some of the fun stuff from Facebook and adds it to the classroom," Hibbert says. He points out that social media and technology in general have the potential to enhance instruction, providing the example of an English teacher whose class writes responses on a class blog. "Instead of just having a question asked in class and one raised hand, you have everyone responding, and it multiplies the perspective."
McDonogh 35 High School and Bethune Elementary School recently embraced the notion that technology can provide teachers a unique opportunity to relate to students. Not only have the schools integrated blogs and social media into their classrooms, but they also have interactive dry-erase boards, laptops and hand-held remote controls students can use to respond to teachers' questions.
"A big thing is that this technology is really allowing students to take ownership of their learning," says Elizabeth Paushter, a spokeswoman for the technology initiatives at McDonogh 35 and Bethune. She says using technology in the classroom creates "project-based learning" instead of a more linear style of instruction in which students simply take notes during lectures.
"You'll find students are no longer hiding in the back and not doing their work," she says. "They're excited about their learning more than I've ever seen before."
These schools agree that if educators can harness the power of social media and technology for its positive qualities, students can benefit from it.
"I wish there was a way we could have kids and adults use it for the good it could do," Campbell says. "They can bring the whole world into Mt. Carmel Academy using the Internet and its resources, but there's also a world you don't want (to allow) into your life."