Meet Kids Where They Are

There’s new research about teen use of the Internet, and guess what? They’re using it through a variety of ever-shifting platforms—and they’re using it a lot.

It probably comes as no surprise to you, of course, that adolescents are staring into some sort of screen much of the time, often a small one in their hands, with their thumbs flying across it or their smiling faces looking up at it. But the Pew Research Center has some new specifics.

Pew found that 92 percent of teenagers report they are going online daily, with a quarter of the students reporting they are online “almost constantly,” and more than half saying they are on “several times a day.”

Nearly 90 percent of students have easy access to a cellphone—the vast majority smartphones—and most are using them to get online, the report says. This access has changed everything for these adolescents, from their relationships with their parents to their relationships with retailers—book and music stores, for instance. Today’s kids obviously communicate and gather information in totally new ways. And right in the middle of it are educators, and specifically, leadership advisers. You are working with a group of social, savvy kids whose purpose is often to interact with their larger community and sometimes the world.

It’s challenging, but advisers seem to be meeting students where they spend their time. Working online can make your council or chapter more effective—and by extension make your job easier.

The Upside

While it can be a huge distraction, advisers are finding that the phone is a great device for communication—for last-minute plans, reminders, or just herding a group together at a conference or event. It’s probably difficult for most advisers to imagine what they did before they could quickly text that one member to ask them to pick up the masking tape or meet the group at the bus—now! Pew reports that 90 percent of students with phones use them to text; a typical teen sends out 30 texts per day.

Counselors like Hannah Turner, the adviser for the Argyle Middle School NJHS chapter in Silver Spring, MD, say they find that online media is comfortable to even younger teens, and it can be an efficient way to be in touch with them. “In the planning portion of service projects and day-to-day NJHS needs, access to technology is instrumental to our success as a team,” Turner says.

Turner and her co-adviser Casey Siddons regularly email and text members, but also use the Google Apps for Education suite, which is reportedly being used by 50 million teachers and students and many leadership advisers. Google Classroom has 10 million users, the company reports.

Turner says she and Siddons have used Google Forms to get input from chapter officers about their priorities and to process student applications. “Due to the busy schedules of advisers and members, we are not always able to meet as frequently as we’d like. So we use the collaborative editing features of apps like Google Docs,” Turner says. “The members can learn about potential service projects, for instance, then as they work in groups they can gather and post information.”

All chapter materials—from meeting agendas and notes to information about projects—is shared in a Google Drive folder. The forms section also allows for easy surveys, and the group has used it for voting purposes.

Melding the Old with the New

Student Michael O’Neil is president of the Edina High School student council in Edina, MN, where technology use is so common that he can easily rattle off several examples. Often, for his group, the current technology connects the group to the past.

“All project documents are organized in Google Drive,” O’Neil says. “We create folders for each season and each event within that season. This makes it very easy to see what [kids in] previous years have done and organize our thoughts and our documents as we plan,” he says.

Like the Argyle NJHS chapter, Edina’s council uses Google Forms for voting. And, like a number of other schools, the entire campus benefits from tweets that announce, promote, and report on council and school activities.

“We use Google Docs, but also Twitter, to tweet out links to voting, as well as information such as spirit week days and upcoming events,” O’Neil says. “We also make Facebook groups to create excitement for events.”

The Pew study notes that teens are diversifying their use of technology, with about 60 percent saying they use more than one type regularly. Amy Holbein, NHS adviser at Clarkston High School in Clarkston, MI, says her group uses a similar array. “Our chapter has more than 230 members, so we rely heavily on technology,” she says. “We communicate through our website as well as Twitter and Facebook, collaborate with Google Docs and Google Presentations, and send messages with Remind.”

How do you know what technology is suitable? Well, your students probably understand options and know how best to use them—with your reasoned input. Tweets may not, for instance, reach parents who would rather receive an email. Teens, however, might not check email for days. So, poll your students, ask the opinion of tech-savvy staff members or parents, and explore the options yourself.

And who does all this? Students usually love to. Some groups remind each member to tweet out information about activities, while others appoint a person for Twitter posts (and notifications on other media) at the start of the year when they select officers. Often a student is in charge of updating the website or Facebook page.

Facing Facts

The use of specific media varies by age, region, socioeconomic status, even race and ethnicity, and students are more likely than ever to use a variety of platforms, according to Pew. But one is still the most popular.

“Facebook remains a dominant force in teens’ social media ecosystems, even as Instagram and Snapchat have risen into a prominent role in teens’ online lives,” the Pew report notes.

The study found that more than 70 percent of adolescents say they use Facebook and generally have about 150 friends, while half said they use Instagram, and 40 percent said they use Snapchat. Boys use Facebook more than girls, girls use Instagram more than boys, and younger adolescents use Instagram more often than their older brothers and sisters, the report finds. One-third of kids responding to the Pew report recounted using Twitter (these were generally older students) and one-quarter reported using pinboards such as Pinterest or Polyvore.

Blog About It

Blogs are also very popular for student organizations. They represent a single, more permanent place to enter material, often replacing the school newspaper or newsletter.

Ronnie Burt, a former teacher and now manager of campus press services for Edublog, an educational blogging network, says, “I believe having a website or blog that is really the hub of all announcements is a good way to go. Then links to the blog/website can be shared on platforms like Facebook. It is really the only thing an administrator would ever have complete control over, which is important.”

Edublog is one of the most popular in education, but there are a number of free sites advisers and students can use, including WordPress and Blogger.com. Blogs are typically easy to set up, user-friendly, and easy to monitor.

Site Central

The chapter website should be at the center of the group’s communication efforts, with links to all other social media outlets available from the site. Turner and others warn, however, that while it may not change as quickly, it is important to keep the site up to date and relevant. Assign someone to update it, and review the material that is displayed there at every meeting. Have everyone contribute new photos, copy, and ideas. The site can link to other media, provide basic information, and also project the desired image of the group.

The Internet has also transformed two other major functions of student leadership: fundraising and service. There are a number of crowdfunding services, and organized groups should have their own system for volunteers to raise money online (see sidebar).

It is a challenge to keep up with student leaders—and perhaps even more challenging to keep up with the technology they are using. But your efforts to clearly understand what technology works best for your group-and your time spent learning how to use it effectively—will pay off with a better connection to your members and increased student engagement. —

Sidebar: Fundraising Favorites

Put the “fun” in fundraising by utilizing these online resources for your next project.

  1. Causes.com allows participants to collaborate and take action together through a social network platform. Donors can create a cause-related platform that asks if participants want to donate, pledge, petition, or be further involved in the campaign.
  2. Crowdrise.com helps with personal fundraising, event fundraising, special-occasion fundraising, team fundraising, and sponsored volunteerism. Basic accounts are free.
  3. FundRazr.com is a crowdfunding platform connected with PayPal. It typically works with personal, group, political, or nonprofit causes through donations or perks.
  4. Google Wallet (www.google.com/wallet) is a system that lets donors access their online donation and shopping history at any time.
  5. DonorsChoose.org is a program for classroom supplies, field trips, and student-led projects.

James Paterson is a writer and editor who has covered education for a variety of national publications. He also works as a school counselor in Montgomery County, MD, where he helped found an NJHS chapter.