Parents at Santa Barbara Middle School, an independent school teaching grades six through nine, were recently given a window into their young teenagers’ mysterious world of social networking. A survey of the school’s students yielded findings that were both expected and alarming: More than 80 percent of those who responded are on Facebook and nearly 70 percent use Skype, a face-to-face video chat service. Parents were also alerted to a Facebook application called Formspring, which opens users up to anonymous comments and is ripe ground for bullies.

“We took the survey to better understand how social networking is affecting the students, both positively and negatively,” said John Seigel-Boettner, who teaches a social studies and life science class to sixth and seventh graders. Seventy five of the school’s 105 students answered the online survey. “We want to try to steer them away from the parts that aren’t so good,” Seigel-Boettner said. “Not knowing all the places they go, it’s hard to steer.” In particular, he and upper-school English teacher Jesse Wooten distributed the 24-question survey to solicit feedback about cyberbulling, and about social networking’s impacts on homework.

Parents who attended the workshop to learn about the results voiced concern that Facebook and Skype are serious distractions during homework time. One quarter of the responders reported that they have a social networking site “on” most of the time while they’re doing their homework, while 42 percent said they “never” have it on during that time. Some commented on the homework issue. “I’m so distracted by social networking but I still do it,” wrote one responder. “I think I don’t do full work when Facebook is open, it takes me ten times longer,” reported another. “It is very helpful and a big distraction,” wrote a third.

The father of a ninth-grader found some comfort there. “I take some solace in the fact that they know it’s distracting. It makes it easier to say, ‘It’s time to turn off the electronics.’” Wooten said he believes the students are very aware of their actions. “I think they genuinely want to do what’s good for them. The more they think about it, the better choices they make.” Wooten and parents shared that students are also using Facebook and Skype to get help with their homework from classmates and some teachers.

Of the responding students with Facebook accounts, 75 percent are Facebook “friends” with their parents, meaning they communicate with them via the social network. Most parents in attendance said it gives them a better window into their children’s world. One mom says she goes onto Facebook during homework hours to ensure that her daughter is off the network. Another noted that it’s hard to police something so addictive. “It’s part of the learning process,” she said, “and my daughter will admit that she’s learning the hard way.” In fact, nearly 70 percent of the students polled said social networking sites are addictive—yet only 24 percent said they themselves are addicted.

As for cyber-bullying, nearly half the students said they’ve seen it or experienced it. Much of what they’ve witnessed is on the Facebook application Formspring, which allows people to comment anonymously or to “anonymously ask questions for others to publicly answer,” according to the description in a CNET news article on the phenomenon. Eighty percent of the students polled said that they do not have a Formspring account—for good reason. Comments included: “I witnessed bullying but I know that’s part of it,” “I had it for a while but it made me really upset,” and, “I saw someone in my class being really harassed and read things I didn’t want to know.” Anonymity produces bullying and mean behavior, according to Wooten. “They don’t have to take responsibility for what they are saying; it’s the place where it happens because it’s completely anonymous.”

Parents seeking more control over the Internet world heard from others in the audience about free Internet filter software called K9 Web Protection. Parents say they use it to block Facebook during prime homework hours. One parent said the only social network account it didn’t work on was Skype.

Seigel-Boettner understands the parental anxiety. “I just keep hearing these voices yelling, ‘Shut it down! Close it down! Unplug!’ but there is too much good stuff out there.” And of course, parents use it too. A parent who works for a local foundation said Facebook for her is essential. She uses its networking features to create standing-room-only attendance at public events, carry out grass-roots fundraising, organize community service, and even furnish apartments for families.

For Head of School Brian McWilliams and the rest of the Santa Barbara Middle School community, the survey was all about conversation. “The whole system here at Middle School is to better understand your children so we can be better educators,” McWilliams said.


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