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Social media: are there hidden problems in your school?

You’re a keen middle manager, and usually say yes to new ideas and projects. But one day a member of the senior leadership team asks casually if you’d do some tweeting on behalf of the school – and you’re not keen. You might refuse, or you might not find the time – but your boss doesn’t really understand your reluctance.

And that’s the fear of being cyberbullied for your tweets on behalf of your institution, whether or not you’re its public face or simply running its account.

This is a problem floating around just under the surface in schools and colleges, according to Dr Hazel Beadle, an academic at the University of Chichester, who studies issues around education and new technology. But even she was surprised by this finding, which she presented at a conference for academic research in July.

“We were looking at something else entirely when we started hearing about this. It was a surprise for all of us involved – this wasn’t something we were looking for, but something revealed. It had also come as a surprise to the person who originally told us about it, a workplace educator who had been talking to lots of people in schools and FE. Then when we did an online questionnaire for people implementing a social media presence this came up each time. It wasn’t what we were looking for, and if it’s coming up that means people think it’s significant.

“People are seeing the potential to use social media to talk about educational ideas, share developments and more. But they’re fearful of being bullied on social media.

“The problem if people are worrying about cyberbullying is that they choose not to use its potential as they might have done, and ended up excluding themselves from the benefits they might have had.”

It’s a problem with no easy answer and lots of different angles, says Dr Beadle.

“Leaders and managers might see social media as a leadership and management tool, and think that people will embrace it. It is a tool, but like many tools it depends on people’s reactions and if it is being linked to other things without thinking. Linking it to negativity and bullying might seem like a great leap, but that’s what’s come out of the study – that people are making great leaps.

“We encourage senior leaders to think about the ways in which individuals may see this – if they’re being reluctant, it may be thought that competence training is the answer, but this is much deeper. It needs to be thought of from that perspective, rather than throwing things at people.

“Unease can preclude people from doing things they might otherwise want to do. They might end up on the receiving end of what they think is cyberbullying – but that’s not a foregone conclusion, and that school or college might be missing out because people are fearful.”

So if this happens to you, what should you do?

The starting point is to explain your reluctance. “It’s the employer’s problem to find a solution,” says Hazel, who also believes more research needs to be done.

“There aren’t any easy answers. Schools need to be looking at their practice in this area, and talking to the people working on their behalf in social media. It’s great when it works well – but not when it doesn’t.”

Resources

Very Unsocial Media: Perceptions Of Cyber Bullying Within Education was presented at the annual conference of the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (BELMAS) on July 7-9. BELMAS is an educational leadership research association open to school and college leaders at all levels as well as academics, and encourages members to generate and share ideas and good practice. BELMAS is an independent voice supporting quality education from effective leadership and management, and membership is free for the first year. Find out more at www.BELMAS.org.uk.

Susan Young is an Education Journalist