Lawrence school district expanding social media education for students, parents

When some parents think of teenagers sharing a message with their entire school, circumstances that run the spectrum between the morning announcements and whispered rumors may come to mind. But in the pockets of most teenagers is a more instant and dynamic way to do so: their smartphones.

With teenagers spending an increasing amount of time on social media, officials with the Lawrence school district hope that education for parents and students will help prevent issues — such as cyber bullying, sharing of private information or other inappropriate use — from increasing as well.

“The fact is that, especially with social media, parents need to attempt to stay one step ahead of their students, and that’s a difficult task to do,” said Denise Johnson, the district’s curriculum coordinator for health and wellness.

Parents need to talk with their kids, but that requires they have an understanding of the topic, Johnson said. Expanding education about responsible, safe and appropriate use of social media in the middle and high schools — through school assemblies, presentations and curriculum in both health and sex education — is part of the strategy to further integrate the topic at school and home, Johnson said.

Beyond topics such as bullying and safety, long-existing issues that have expanded to cyber realms, there are also more contemporary ones, such as sexting. Sexting — the sending of sexual texts, often including explicit photographs — is one of the topics addressed by the human sexuality curriculum for Lawrence middle school students and part of the National Human Sexuality Education Standards that were first implemented last year, Johnson said.

With all types of messages students send or post, they need to realize the permanency of them, Johnson said. That includes messages sent with apps such as Snapchat that don’t automatically save a record of photos and messages but still give users the ability to do so, she explained.

“It’s educating them, so the students have a deepening understanding of what’s on your phone and what you send out there is out there forever,” she said.

About 70 percent of teenagers ages 13 to 17 report having access to a smartphone, and about 90 percent report going online daily — including about 25 percent who say they go online “almost constantly,” according to a recent study from Pew Research Center. As far as social media use, Facebook is the most popular social media platform, with about 70 percent of all teens using the site. About half of teens use Instagram, nearly as many use Snapchat and about 70 percent of teens report using more than one platform. Johnson said that providing information about social media to teens is being proactive as opposed to reactive to its use.

“Hopefully we’re able to front-load them with the information before it’s out of their control,” she said.

Presentations on social media for parents and students will be given at all four of the district’s middle schools this year. The presentations will provide parents with the information they need to have an informed conversation with their student at home, Johnson said.

“The parent night is just an opportunity for parents to step in a talk with their kid,” she said. “We’ve laid out the education, we’ve given you the facts, and now you need to talk with your family.”

The first parent presentation will be for Southwest parents Monday. The presentations will include an overview of social media and information on online safety and responsibility provided by a juvenile investigator with the Lawrence Police Department and Lawrence school resource officers. The other three middle school presentations are not yet scheduled, but parents will get a notification two weeks before the event at their student’s school, Johnson said.

Each of the four parent presentations will be followed by school assemblies and follow-up classroom discussions with guidance counselors for students. The assemblies and discussions provide the chance for students to ask questions in both large and small group settings or with an anonymous note, Johnson said.

“As a teacher, you want to do your best to personalize the learning, especially with sensitive subjects like this,” Johnson said. “A lot of kids won’t want to speak out and ask questions in a large group.”

The district’s initiative, referred to as “digital citizenship,” could also expand beyond the presentations and health education in the future. One of the school board’s goals this year is to further integrate digital citizenship into the curriculum and increase parent involvement.

“Digital citizenship is about teaching students to use technology safely, legally, responsibly and respectfully,” said Julie Boyle, Lawrence public schools spokesperson.

Boyle explained that integration means that appropriate use of technology can be taught across all subject areas, such as when students are researching information for a history paper or writing a blog for English class. Johnson said that part of the school board initiative will be determining how digital citizenship will look in each subject.

“It’s understanding that in every curricular area, we are a digital society,” Johnson said.

Beginner’s guide to social media:

Applications or apps for various social media platforms are designed for use on smartphones or other mobile devices. The apps are most often free, install to the device with a few steps and enable users to post text, photos or videos to social media with a couple taps to their screens.

Each social media platform has elements unique to it, as well as its own set of terminology, and usually specific verbs — posting for Facebook, tweeting for Twitter, snapping for Snapchat — to describe user updates. Most teens report using multiple platforms, and the top four most commonly used platforms, according to Pew Research Center, are described below:


Facebook: Users can share photos, videos and text with their network of friends, to public or private groups or via private messages. All formats of posts can be commented on. Users can indicate preference for others’ posts by clicking a thumbs-up icon — known as a “like” — and posts of any format can be shared, which displays them to the network of friends of the user who shares it. The number of likes, shares and comments is tallied under the post.


Instagram: Users post, caption and comment on photographs and videos and can use Instagram to post directly to other platforms. Known for filters and photo editing akin to a scaled-down version of Photoshop. Posts can be liked by clicking a heart icon under the post, and likes are tallied.


Snapchat: Photo messages, usually sent between two individuals, with or without captions that “disappear” once seen by the recipient, though users can choose to save them. Known for humorous filters (such as appearing in a fish tank) and the ability to mark on photos.


Twitter: Short messages, called tweets, are limited to 140 characters and can be accompanied by photos or short video clips. Provides users with the ability to converse with wide audiences on a specific topic by using a hashtag, which is a descriptor of the conversation topic preceded by the pound sign. Tweets can be favorited by clicking a star icon and shared by retweeting, and both functions are tallied under the post.