How can we help pupils manage the complex world of social media

At every turn it seems that the social media giants have devised yet more ways to suck young people into the vortex. While schools may wish to try and ‘whack-a-mole’ the perceived threat, I have come to the conclusion that they may be tackling this in altogether the wrong way.  In my work with schools and young people, it is clear that there is sometimes a fundamental disconnect between schools and pupils’ perception of what social media means, the threats and benefits. This is a generational gap. The digital world is moving at such a pace, it doesn’t take long to be out of date. It’s ironic that the teachers who devise the guidance often know less than the pupils in many respects. Cue eye rolling emojis.

The original purpose

So, let’s consider the original purpose of one of the social media behemoths, Facebook. Its founder had few friends at university and built a social networking platform to help him get a girlfriend. The fundamental rationale for people using social media hasn’t changed. Finding like-minded people to befriend is very comforting, especially if you’re shy and unconfident. What has changed is the content, the influences and the potential for things to go wrong, especially for the young and vulnerable.


In order for schools to help pupils avoid being sucked into the social media vortex, it is necessary to gain consensus about what some of the potential threats are.

  • Being influenced by negative, anti-social, fake or illegal content- grooming.
  • Developing unhealthy and unrealistic attitudes towards oneself and others- notions of beauty, perfection and typicality.
  • The effects on attention span, activity levels and narrowing of social and cultural horizons.

Knowledge is power

Schools have an important role to play in helping pupils to be critical thinkers. Pupils in KS2 can be taught about how to look closely at the origin and purpose of a piece of evidence to help them understand how media is used to influence people. Elections have been won and lost on the basis of social media feeds. Teaching pupils as they get older about how these social media giants work should be a compulsory part of the education plan. Helping them to understand the colossal commercial gains these companies make by duping them into buying this or looking like that, is our moral duty. TikTok is a dopamine app. Its algorithms are specifically designed to show videos it knows you would like. This data is acquired through your very use and even proximity to the smartphone. While we can’t stop young people from using social media, we can give them the knowledge they need to know what they’re dealing with when they engage with it. Knowledge is power.

Generating awareness

There have always been outliers. Those that prefer to sit outside of the social norms. Before the internet, these groups or individuals had limited influence. Social media provides the perfect medium to transmit views, images to the most impressionable negatively. Those in the extremes of society, be they cyberbullies that sit behind keyboards being hateful, or people espousing extremist ideologies or sexual predators have found social media to be a helpful medium for their dangerous exploits. The Online Harms Bill has attempted to hold the social media platforms to account for harmful content, but this is not nearly enough to prevent young people from encountering it. Therefore, all educators can do is make pupils aware of the dangers, expose the hateful content, where appropriate, but more importantly be aware of what kind of material is potentially out there. Schools are starting to use their older pupils more and more as their eyes and ears and as advisers. Pupil focus groups where non-judgemental discussion can be held about the kinds of things that are trending on social media, have proved really useful for leaders in deciding their online safety curriculum content. For example, those schools that were early in recognising the potentially dangerous views espoused by Andrew Tate, were able to tackle his misogynistic views head on during PSHE lessons and in assemblies.

Mental Health Programmes

Many schools are developing their mental health provision, especially after Lockdown. We know that young people had spent far too long online during this time. The boom in social media influencers is off the scale at the moment. It would be hard not to compare oneself to the heavily photoshopped images bombarding the social media feeds. Instant gratification and instant validation have become intoxicating. Schools’ mental health programme should be focusing on values: what makes you a good person, what makes you a good friend, what makes you a good citizen. Helping pupils to value their intrinsic worth, challenge popular notions of beauty and help pupils to develop compassion towards oneself and others, should be deliberately planned for.

Promoting positivity

Raising self-esteem and promoting kindness should be essential tenets of a good pastoral strategy. Schools should therefore help pupils to frame their values around the real world not a virtual one. In one school I work in, the school framed achievement awards around kindness and positive values. Pupils in this primary school were rewarded when they were caught being kind. The leaders made sure that all pupils received some positive feedback every day. Hopefully these pupils will feel less inclined to seek affirmation elsewhere.

Extracurricular benefits

Being sucked into the social media vortex can often lead to laziness, inactivity and diminishing motivation. Schools that have banned mobile phones, help pupils to focus on their schoolwork and other activities. Leaders who have invested in the wider pastoral curriculum help pupils to find interests and hobbies that may spark their passions and motivation. Of course, sport plays a significant role in getting young people away from social media – it offers social, health and character development benefits. However, there are an abundance of other activities pupils can get involved with that may extend beyond the school gates. Many schools are scheduling time in the school day for these types of activities to make sure everyone benefits.  Countering the lure of social media requires a concerted effort.

Broaden horizons

Helping pupils become less introspective and narrow in their world view has to be another crucial goal of schools when considering the negative impact of social media. We need more people who are progressively-minded and socially responsible in our society. Schools can help to develop these attitudes through the curriculum. Broadening pupils’ horizons about cultures and communities other than their own and helping them to get involved in causes to help others less fortunate than themselves will influence their social media activity positively.

Working together

As with most school strategies, their influence and success is very much dependent on how well parents are engaged. Their influence, their knowledge about these matters and how they role model to their children are critical in helping to avoid the worst effects of social media. The partnership between school and home must therefore be strong. Schools can support parents in having open dialogue with their children about how they are managing the world of social media. They can help them to put the virtual world into perspective. The school’s website can be a helpful place for support and signposting for parents and pupils. Some schools I work with are now considering pastoral development parents’ evenings to emphasise this aspect of pupils’ education.

In short, social media is here to stay; it is part of the fabric of young people’s society. There are many benefits for young people in using it. By influencing pupils’ character, attitudes and motivations in schools, we can temper the negative effects.

Top tips!

Here are my top tips for schools in helping pupils manage their social media world.

  • Agree among all staff the possible threats that social media poses to the pupils. Keep staff updated on the current issues
  • Use older pupils, including students in the sixth form, to help guide and advise on the online safety curriculum content.
  • Deliberately plan the online safety curriculum to include knowledge about the origins, nature and purpose of the different social media platforms.
  • Plan regular opportunities for pupils to develop their critical thinking skills in each year. Expose negative trending influences.
  • Ensure the rewards policy reinforces sound values, attitudes and character.
  • Extend pupils’ interests, hobbies and horizons through the curriculum and a strong enrichment programme.
  • Have a strong parental engagement programme and use the school website as a hub for online support and guidance. Consider a pastoral development parents evening.


Helpful resources:

Information, Advice and Support to Keep Children Safe Online (

Keeping children safe online | NSPCC

Parents and carers | CEOP Education (

E-safety Guides for Schools | National Online Safety

Online safety hub | Barnardo’s (



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