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It's vital we teach social networking skills in school

First off, young people should learn not to write anything on Facebook or Twitter they wouldn't say to that person's face

Social networking, especially via Twitter and Facebook, has become a major part in modern life for many millions of people. It therefore makes sense to show children how to use it wisely and how to get the best out of it – just as teachers and parents have always done with resources such as libraries and newspapers. Much better to guide and teach than to leave vulnerable children and teenagers to find out for themselves without warning them of the potential dangers, pitfalls and problems.

As with learning to read, swim or play good football children will be much more effective social networkers with support, guidance and help than without. They need to be able to capitalise on all the advantages of Facebook or Twitter without the disadvantages.

So three cheers for Taunton School, an independent school in Somerset, which has announced the inclusion of social networking in the basic internet safety section of its Personal Social and Health Education programme. I hope many more schools – in both maintained and independent sectors – follow suit.

There are three main reasons why teachers should be clued up about social networking and the ways in which it can be used with and by pupils.

First – and this seems to be Taunton School’s main concern – there’s the vexed question of what it is acceptable to say (write) on a social networking site and what it is not. It is all too easy to libel someone – even by re-tweeting someone else’s statement which amuses or interests you. If you re-tweet you pass it on and appear to be endorsing it which may implicate you in the content of the comment.

After the false and inaccurate connection of Lord McAlpine to allegations of child abuse in Wales earlier this year, he has announced his intention to sue a number of prominent Twitter users who spread information about the case around the network.

Statistics released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that in 29 police forces in England, Scotland and Wales 653 people face charges involving use of Twitter and Facebook in 2012. Offensive or abusive messages are usually the trigger.

We need to educate young people to understand that it is wrong to write anything on a social networking site which you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. As it is, it is all to easy to get carried away when you’re addressing someone you can’t see and whom you may not know personally.

Second, Twitter and Facebook are, as has been well publicised, a groomer’s dream. It is vital that children – and I’m sure most parents and schools are already doing this – be carefully drilled in spotting the dangers. That means, for example, never posting suggestive photographs, ‘flirting’ online with strangers, or agreeing to meet anyone you’ve ‘met’ only via a social networking site.

Third, for goodness sake let’s capitalise on social networking and make it a force for the good in education. It means teachers have to get really clued up about how these sites work and can be made to work. Then the potential for learning is almost limitless.

In April I was followed on Twitter by thirty, photograph-less people en bloc. They had clearly genuine names and I’m sure it was a class of children – probably at primary school age. Their teacher had presumably chosen a group of people for these children to follow and thought I could be relied upon to behave appropriately. Three months later when term ended all those accounts were deactivated when, I suppose, the class moved on and the teacher was tidying up. He or she was, I surmise, teaching them how to use Twitter.

Children who are reluctant readers and writers can be encouraged to do both using social networking sites. A teacher friend told me recently how she’d got a group of four highly ‘reluctant’ nine year old boys to make up a pretty decent story collaboratively in 140 character Twitter posts. Even the Royal Shakespeare Company, a couple of years ago had six Tweeters unfolding a modern upbeat version of Romeo and Juliet (the project was called ‘Such Tweet Sorrow’) via Twitter which encouraged a lot of young people to read something they probably wouldn’t otherwise have done.

The key to making all this work, however, is that teachers and schools have to be open-minded and prepared to embrace new ways of working. Many, of course, are doing so with enthusiasm, but some are still locked in dinosaur mode. It is no good saying, typically without any personal experience of them, that Twitter and Facebook are silly and trivial, just something the kids to mess about with and nothing to do with schools and learning. Social Networking is here to stay. It’s part of 21 century life and we owe it to children growing up in a digital world to educate ourselves so that we can help the young to make the very best of it.