CHAPEL HILL - After a few recent negative incidents, a group of East Chapel Hill High School students are trying to show their fellow students how social media can be used for good.
Students volunteered to attend an all-day social media summit at the school last month, where they heard from local social media experts and from teachers who use social media in their classes.
Afterward, the students drafted a social media constitution that includes amendments pledging to “think before we tweet, post or send.”
At the summit, government teacher Treve Lumsden encouraged every student to sign up for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, pointing to his own experience as an example of ways a person can learn from people thousands of miles away.
A teacher in Hawaii asked on Twitter if a teacher from the South would like to speak to her class through Skype, and Lumsden volunteered. The Hawaiian students had heard of UNC and Duke University, but they thought life in the South must be like “Gone with the Wind.” By talking to him, they expanded their world view, Lumsden said.
“When you’re learning about other places, cultures and groups, you can instantaneously connect with those people,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine having that opportunity as a kid.”
In their constitution, the students wrote that social media is “important, a huge part of our culture and is not going away.”
After the students attending the summit finished their draft of a social media constitution, 20 of them volunteered to plan a parent social media information night and use focus groups of fellow students to continue the conversation about the positive use of social media.
Physics and biology teacher Megan Wickenden pointed out the important role Twitter has played in the rise of several social movements. Students have an opportunity previous generations have not to join a global conversation about a topic, something which had never been possible before, she added.
The downside of a global conversation, however, is that negative posts can quickly extend beyond the person posting. Each speaker emphasized that social media can be used positively or negatively, and it is up to the individual students to decide how they will use it.
Principal Eileen Tully told students she is proud of the culture at East Chapel Hill High and hopes that students will successfully translate that culture to their social media accounts.
“How is social media going to shape and promote the culture that is you?” she said.
In the past few months, Tully said she has had to work with Twitter to close a few anonymous accounts that focused on harassing East Chapel Hill High students.
“The sole purpose of those accounts was to destroy the souls of people,” she said. “Those were real people they were talking about – and I know, because I spent five days with students who were destroyed, who were in tears.”
In response, some students started a compliment account.
“That was lovely,” Tully said. “I even got a couple.”
Tully came up with the idea for the summit after meeting with a group of concerned students after the incidents.
Lt. T.D. Comar , a junior investigator with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, spoke to students about laws the North Carolina legislature has enacted that outlaw cyber-bullying and harassment, including a new law this year that makes it a misdemeanor to impersonate a teacher online. A student violating that law could face jail time, a $1,000 fine and might have to transfer schools.
Dealing with cyber-harassment has taken up a lot of investigators’ time in the past several years since those laws went into effect, Comar said. Getting court orders for access to online accounts and data can be an all-day event.
“A physical fight, that’s simple,” he said. “You break it up right then. This virtual world – most people we’re dealing with have no idea they’ve committed a crime.”
Although the school and the Sheriff’s Office spend a lot of time dealing with allegations of cyber-bullying and cyber-harassment, Comar believes incidents are underreported because students are afraid their parents will take their phone or computer away.