Allô? Allô ? **


** Interjection in French at the beginning of a regular phone call. Not systematically used anymore by young people

The world around us keeps changing. With the constant evolution of technology, this is not only our environment that looks different: social interactions are nowhere close to what they looked like only fifteen years ago.
We don’t connect with others the same way we used to, and adults are usually the ones that need catching up. In 2020, teenagers’ lives are intertwined with technology tools and apps. They learn quickly how to use these, they easily share the “how-to” among peers and friends, they spend the time needed to grasp its particularities. That applies to social media: where adults often make a distinction between a social interaction “in person” and exchanges through technology, for young people, social media is simply real life, and it carries its own rules and etiquette.

As these are often mysterious to adults, Mary H.K. Choi, author, editor, and journalist, conducted a series of interviews with teenagers across the United States, meeting and corresponding more extensively with five high schoolers. In her article, Like. Flirt. Ghost: A Journey Into The Social Media Lives of Teens (Wired), she gives us a detailed report on her findings, chronicling their digital experiences, and I personally learned a lot (not only about English expressions I didn’t know! -Thanks Google Translate and Urban Dictionary-). There are specific unwritten rules such as the obligation to like a friend’s post on Instagram, and the need to comment it for a close friend; there are boundaries: oversharing is taboo, lurking and going for a “deep-like” (liking an old picture) is considered awkward. Some teens might have second accounts with a fake name for sharing more private pictures taken at parties for example. Some might use Facebook as a more public and impersonal account used for extra-curricular updates for example, or to communicate with adults including college admission offices.
Social media for teenagers is also the place where flirting occurs as it replaces, to some extent, the hanging around in groups at the shopping mall; here again, the process is quite codified.
Snapchat is another very popular social media platform, that appeared in 2011 and is still to-date mainly in the hands of teenagers, unlike Facebook years ago, who has been taken over by adults and therefore abandoned by younger teenagers, and Instagram who is widely used by small and big businesses alike to promote their products. Users snap pictures or videos of themselves or friends to update their “story”; the specificity is the fact that posts disappear after 24 hours, reducing the pressure for everyone. It can also be used to send private messages.
Interesting how the current smartphone generation is redefining communication.

But are they?
How is the way our students communicate with their friends similar -or not- to the way we connected with our friends when we were a teenager?

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

Attending a small local and quite rural elementary school, friends lived in the neighborhood, and we were mainly seeing each other outside school hours during the nice season, for bike rides and unplanned playdates. At 12 years old, and the start of middle school, socializing started on the way to school, during the 20 minutes tram rides. It sometimes continued in the classroom (ah these handwritten notes that circulated from desk to desk… oops!), with a different group than the morning one, and during lunchtime. There were the people you knew a little, and occasionally talked to, always at school; the smaller circle of good friends, that you would meet on occasional dates, activities or parties, and of course, THE best friend, the one you wanted to spend as much time possible with, including weekends and holidays, the one you would talk to for over an hour on the phone, after school, to your parent’s bewilderment.

One hour was already a lot at the time: first of all, the FAMILY phone was ATTACHED to a wire and usually placed in the living room, at the eavesdrop of the entire family. No privacy there. Secondly, it was quite expansive and parents would remind you to keep it short.
Recently we were explaining this reality to our 19-years old son, and his girlfriend. I am not sure they understood our reality regarding telecommunication in the ’80s. How giving your parents’ phone number to a friend -or possible boy/girl-friend wasn’t anecdotal. How missing the train back home was a disaster when your father expected you back home on time (remember! No cellphone to contact him).

After reading Choi’s article, I got curious and wondered what was the reality of students closer to me: how do they connect with their friends, why those communication methods are so important to them, what are the challenges they face and how do they deal with them?
The lasting school closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t allow me to have informal conversations with students on the topic. Therefore I decided to create a Google Form that students could fill in anonymously after I explained the questions and my motivation to find out how they communicate via social media, and what is their main purpose: Social Media and Young People

This school year I have been co-teacher to a Personal Learning group of grade 7 students: we used to meet 4 times a week for half an hour; in Distance Learning, we met every day for 15 minutes on Zoom with short check-in on Wellness Wednesdays: here was my first obvious “study” group, and I enjoyed writing the subject line of the email I sent them: “Helping Mme Toilier with her homework!” They liked it too, as 90% of them replied, and did it seriously despite the anonymity.
My second easy-to-reach target group was current Seniors and recent alumni. In the end, it gave me an interesting gap, allowing comparison between 12/13 years old to 18/20 years old.

For the 12/13 years old group, the top 3 Social Media apps they use most are, in order: YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. Other ones mentioned: Whatsapp, Google Hangout, LINE, and Discord that I had never heard of.
Note: two students answered not being on social media, only listing YouTube (sic) and (video)calls via Zoom or Google Hangout.
Most of them don’t communicate with parents via apps, and if some did before the lockdown, it was a quick check-in via a text message (the “pick-me-up at 6 pm” type).
For the 18/20 years old group, the top 3 for “most used” is actually a top 2: Instagram for one third and Facebook / Messenger for two thirds. They mainly stay in contact with friends through Insta and Whatsapp, or Messenger; one feature they like best is to leave vocal messages, rather than actual calls. During the pandemic, though, they had long group chats with friends, sometimes with video on. Their main communication tools with parents are Messenger and phone text messages.
One big difference between the two groups is the age they got their first smartphone: the younger students all have one, some already for 2 years, while the older ones received their first phone around 13-14 years old, with one at 15 and one at 16. This brings us to the first conclusion: teenagers are definitely ‘online” and are active on social media at an earlier age than ever, and don’t have to wait to be home to use it: the tools are at their fingertips, smartphone always on them.
Common grounds were the distinction they all made between “close friends” and “friends”: the level of interactions changed (public only vs. public and private ones): and as a 13 years-old student quoted: “I do more jokes/use irony with my closest friends”.
A few of them, in each age group, recognized at least one problematic relationship through social media. The communication just stopped afterward. It is difficult to know through an online questionnaire if these were big issues and if some encountered bullying distress.

From Pixabay

What is striking are the similarities between the ’80s and today: the urge to communicate and share with peers, the friendship hierarchy, the failure of some relationships… The differences, and yes, they are quite big, lies in the medium these communications take place, the kind of messages teenagers can instantly share through text, emojis, pictures, videos, voice messages…, the selected or large audience they can reach at once, and the extended geographical zone: friends don’t need to be in the same tram or in the same courtyard to exchange.

What is very clear is how social media has become a key form of communication for teenagers nowadays: it is an integral part of their environment, helping them to bond and create friendships. They are familiar and at ease with social media: as educators, we should not only promote and support a culture of participation, we should use it within our classrooms.

This means that we, adults, also need to learn about the social media culture, and that would include finding out what emojis are, and learning how you can express yourself through this internet-based self-recognition phenomenon where pictures and gifs are used to represent feelings, reactions and internal states when you publish online: Are You Literally What You Post? will tell you all about it. Why not include some of them in your lesson plans or communications with your students?

In Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture, we learn that we should aim to encourage young people to “develop the skills, knowledge, ethical frameworks, and self-confidence needed to be full participants in contemporary culture.” Many of our students are already part fo this process, and usually we are not aware of it. We need to be. And we also need to be (or learn to become) participants too. Today and tomorrow’s education need to include Participatory Culture in the Classroom.

“Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement”.
(from “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture)

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