I found myself new a room with education majors (or "preservice teachers" as they call themselves now), as well as mostly elementary and middle school students. Since more elementary students can't or at least shouldn't have Twitter/Instagram accounts yet, and since middle school students don't have ubiquitous phones the same way high school students do, I knew right away the conversation would be something else. Instead, the conversation became all about "digital citizenship", i.e. how do we convince students not to do/post/say dumb/mean things on social media? Teachers talked about bringing in the police to threaten the students by saying if they post a "threat" online, they'll be arrested. Some talked about getting students to understand that these ten-year olds' future careers could be effected. Some talked about getting the principal involved when kids were saying mean things online. There was a huge effort to get students to be "better" on social media.
And while getting kids to be nice (rather than mean) is a good thing, I think it completely misses the point.
There's a few truths about people I think everyone can agree with. Some kids are nice; some kids are mean, though most are somewhere in between. Additionally, everyone in the world thinks and says things that would probably get them in trouble if they said them in the wrong place. Every adult in the world's favorite past time is likely "complaining about work"...not even because work is hard...but it's something to do. As kids grow up, they learn (hopefully) how to control their impulses and behave appropriately and maturely in certain situations. This has nothing to do with social media.
What social media has become is the new backchannel. The backchannel used to be whispers and folded notes. That was it's given form for decades. Then it became texting under the desk. Then it turned to Twitter, and currently it resides at Snapchat and Instagram. With each stage, teachers/adults make gains to stop or control these behaviors...and eventually succeed...which only drives the students on to something else. Teachers start taking notes and reading them out loud, so kids start texting. Teachers take phones and so kids start communicating online. Teachers join Twitter and students stop using it as a place to vent. Currently, everyone is on Snapchat (which is much more private) but it's only a matter of time until that's "invaded" as well.
With each new element of social media that we "dissect" or "teach kids how to use properly"...we essentially kill it. The whole point of social media is that you connect and interact as "yourself" in ways that you normally don't get the chance to do in person. If you "learn" that Twitter is only for professional, mature, sensible posts, you're going to do your complaining and joking around somewhere else. Eventually, the students realize "wow, if the police are watching my Instagram account...looks like I'll have to have fun somewhere else". Social media is a remainder of an unbalanced equation. It's a pressure valve that exists to let off steam. It has great professional potential, of course, but that's not why the kids are there.
So...should we teach kids to be smart, mature, and nice? Of course. Should we teacher them to use the internet responsibly? Of course. But let's not pretend like doing that will stop kids from being immature, mean, and irresponsible at times. Invading their backchannel will only create a new backchannel somewhere that's even harder for us to see.