Do We Need Social Media Classes in School?

This is a follow-up to the article The School That’s Transforming Minds of Malayali Students. To understand the full context of this article, please read that one first.

In the previous article, I talked about how a particular school in Kerala was teaching social media analysis to 7th Grade students. Watching them react to an Instagram post that attracted a lot of negative comments made me think: is this really the future?

You’ve probably come across social media posts that joke about how out of touch our school education really was. Memes that said we were taught about differentiation but not how to balance a simple budget. Instagram stories that pondered why we spent so much time learning about 14th-century history but not enough about the importance of mental health.

This is not to say differentiation or Muhammad bin Tughluq isn’t important to certain academic disciplines. But shouldn’t schools be teaching what’s most valuable to the most number of students?

That’s where the case for teaching social media comes in. Fifteen years ago high school students were just starting to learn about MySpace and Orkut. Today by the time you are an 8th grader you’ve already travelled miles through Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube feeds with your thumb.

So what would it look like if social media was part of the school syllabus? And is that even possible? Before even researching about how Indian school syllabuses can be changed, the answer came to mind.

Remember the 2004 tsunami?

You probably do, and even if the memory is a little vague, if you were in high school like me you remember how the school syllabus immediately changed 2 years later. Suddenly, students like me were handed new books and informed of a new class in our timetable. Disaster Management.

I didn’t think much of it then, but as I researched the issue for this article, I was shocked. Did you know that those textbooks and new classes all came about because the government passed the Disaster Management Act of 2005? It ushered in a lot of change, but here’s the most relevant point.

One of the main tasks of the National Executive Committee that was formed through this Act was the promotion of general education and awareness related to disaster management.

This felt like one of those scenes from a courtroom drama where the lawyer jumps up from his seat in the library, holding a book that proves there is precedent.

There is precedent!

Teaching social media to students suddenly sounds less like a dream and more like a possibility. It could be ushered in through government regulations that have been exercised before.

Of course, now’s the time to address the scepticism. After all, should we really be teaching high school students about Instagram and the right way to retweet something? One of the main criticisms for a social media course in school will probably come from those parents who consider the whole matter a zero-sum game.

If your son is spending one hour every week learning how to tackle troll comments online, isn’t that one less hour studying physics, biology or mathematics? Doesn’t that affect his future?

It’s easy to dismiss these complaints as simply gripes of over-competitive parents, but it’s a powerful emotion. It’s the same idea that forces youngsters to cancel their music classes and dance lessons when they enter 11th Grade. When you live in a densely populated, developing country, you sometimes don’t have the luxury of learning how to be a well-developed person. Your focus has to remain on being a well-employed one first.

So instead of arguing why it’s more important for a son or daughter to be a better social media user than spend additional hours perfecting their entrance scores, let’s eliminate the issue altogether.

If everyone in the race is handicapped equally, then no one really is, right? In other words, just like how all CBSE students had to study Disaster Management instead of some gaining more time to perfect their Chemistry scores, Social Media can become a course that is mandatory for every student.

There still remains the question though. Is this necessary and is it even going to work?

They’re two different questions requiring two different answers. And yes, one is much easier to answer than the other.

If you’ve been a social media user for even six months, you definitely wish things were different online. Your complaints can range from the innocuous (please stop posting so many cat videos!) to life-threatening (please stop sending me death and rape threats!)

We all have that one friend we wish we could pull aside and advise. Someone who posts stuff online that makes you cringe or shake your head in disbelief. It’s easy to get angry at that person but think about the bigger picture.

All of us are using technology to communicate in a manner that’s never been done before. For centuries human beings only heard from their close friends and neighbours on a daily basis. And then, within a couple of decades, we achieved the ability to address strangers halfway across the world.

Here’s an analogy to consider. Imagine a large town where everyone had a stick they could use. To help them walk, to lean on…or to hit someone. For centuries, everyone relied on sticks, and whenever a person used it to hit someone, everyone around him noticed.

Now imagine in a very short period of time almost everyone got a large water canon. This tool too can be put to good use, but as you can imagine, it can be quite destructive too. What if this water cannon had an unlimited range, allowing you to point it in any direction and fire upon any person on earth. What would happen?

Now imagine if most people in that town couldn’t see you use that water canon.

That’s what social media is like. You can be an innocent 17-year-old kid helping elderly ladies at the local church. While viciously bullying a stranger online who you’ve never met. You could both those things at the same time!

If you were to judge that kid’s actions, you’d probably say he was being cruel. But then take a step back and it becomes clear that he’s not the only one to blame. How can you only condemn someone who found a water canon and was never instructed on how to use it? How can you throw him out of society after he spent years using that water canon in full view of his loved ones without ever being questioned? Isn’t there something else that needs to be done as well?

There’s a recent Instagram story that highlighted how serious this issue is. An Instagrammer posted a story about how she reported a cyberbully to the authorities. What followed was a series of voice notes from the bully, who turned out to be a young man grovelling for forgiveness. He’d fired a water cannon and for the first time, someone didn’t like being drenched. It was a shock to him. The idea that this could even be possible.

While that bully was definitely taught a lesson he’d never forget, are we simply going to wait for every one of these water cannon wielding individuals to be reported to the police?

Or do we teach them what to do with those water cannons before they start discovering the awesome power of those tools?

There’s a reason why the idea of introducing social media classes to school students is so promising. Because it’s not about simple etiquette lessons such as never type with Caps Lock on or warnings such as don’t comment on your ex’s photo when you are intoxicated.

Rather, it’s a window into every aspect of our lives. For years now we’ve all complained about how social media is dominating our daily life. This is the chance to capitalize on that, to turn this huge negative into a positive.

When you start teaching students about social media, the questions that follow will allow you to teach them about morality, politics, sociology, economics and almost every other academic discipline.

If five years from now a group of 7th graders are taught about the #WomenHaveLegs controversy, can you imagine the discussions that would take place in that “Social Media” class? The teacher would start a debate about why the controversy started, and every answer would beg new questions. An actress was viciously trolled for a photo she posted. Why were the commenters so angry at her? What do their words tell you about their beliefs?

Students would return home with burning questions that would compel them to read further. They’d understand concepts such as misogyny, feminism, chauvinism and celebrity culture.

Most importantly, they wouldn’t be educated through Instagram stories the way we are today. They would be directed to essays and academic lessons incorporated into their syllabus. With each year the various educational institutions will be forced to expand the content in the textbooks.

Teaching students about social media is not just going to make them better social media users. It’ll make them better human beings.

Now there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that if you’ve read the previous article that described a social media class in a Kerala school, you just read a piece of fiction. I never attended such a class, except in my mind.

Here’s the good news. Robert Kennedy once said something that’s extremely applicable to the conversation of social media. “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

For years we’ve seen each other’s behaviour on social media and wondered why we are so impulsive, so cruel, and so ignorant. Isn’t it time to dream of a world where our kids learn to behave properly on social media and ask why we can’t have that as our future?

If you are dismayed by the fact that the previous article was fictitious, I apologize. I didn’t mean to get your hopes up. But remember, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” And if you identified with the story of a school that teaches social media analysis, that means the truth has been revealed to you. This is something you want.

Sadly, there is no link or petition or parliamentary action for me to pivot to at this point. While researching this story, my editor pointed out that 150 government schools in Kannur had started teaching its students how to identify fake news. This initiative, “Satyamev Jayate” is the brainchild of Kannur District Collector, Mir Mohammed Ali.

But you don’t need to be a District Collector to help make this a future for your kids. Change happens in many ways, but one of the most powerful methods is when there is a grassroots movement to implement it. Rather than waiting for the central government to pass a sweeping reform, you can initiate a conversation. Sure, it might not leave the four walls of your living room, but if enough people talk about this, sooner or later enough people with power will implement change.

It’s time to stop complaining about social media and start looking for ways to ensure we use it properly, right?

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