Realities of social media use in education: dangers and pitfalls

Professional Pathways Blog

This blog represents the views of the author and does not represent any official position by FLANZ

Social Media Collage

My previous three blogs on the theme of social media use in education highlighted some of the benefits for educators and students. This blog will highlight some dangers and pitfalls.

These fall into the categories of access, digital literacy, privacy, data protection and social factors


It is wrong to assume that all students, regardless of their age, have access to smartphone technologies and sufficient data to engage in mobile online learning, regardless with flavour of social media used. Mobile phone access is fairly consistent in New Zealand amongst secondary school children at between 62% (2021 to date) and 78% (2019) but that is far from ubiquitous (1). Amongst the total population it is reportedly as high as 97% but still not universal.(2) There is a danger that in seeking to be inclusive teachers may exclude individuals.

Digital Literacy

While there may be advantages to ‘go where the kids are’, given the caveat above, the second assumption made in the popular press is that tweens and teens are all ‘digital natives3. Certainly they are ‘digital residents4, having been born into a digital age where such technologies are no longer seen as an addendum to life but fully integrated. However, no one  assumes everyone has the ability to speak, write and read languages to the same degree. We accept that there are children and young people, and indeed those already in the workforce, who have literacy challenges. Likewise, the ability to read screens and navigate their way app menus is too much for some.

Given that the society we are intending to prepare our learners for is a digital one, it makes sense to ensure that they are digitally literate but not to assume that they are all at the same stage.


An important dimension of digital literacy is an awareness of the persistence of the digital footprint. A simply illustration of this is the recognition that we have taken more photographs in the last five years than in all the years prior combined. In 2015 the New York Times estimated between 2.5-3.5 Trillion photographs had been taken. This year alone, 1.4 Trillion photographs are expected to be taken. A reasonable proportion of these are posted to social media platforms. Every drunken party, every sexual misdeed, substance abuse, criminal misdemeanour that previous generations would have only memories of, are now in danger of being immortalised in digital imagery.

Learning to value one’s own identity, to curate one own image and reputation, is a challenge for the young. Our society, which has been forgiving in the past of the many misdoings of youth, now are confronted with enduring reminders of them. The days when public online bulletin boards provided anonymity and ‘no one knows your a dog’ are largely gone. Now, in the world of Facebook and Instagram the purpose is to be yourself.

On the internet noone knows you're a dog (cartoon)
Peter Steiner’s cartoon, as published in The New Yorker July 5, 1993


Data Protection

This leads me to the next danger in Social Media use in Education that of data protection. Government Privacy Laws change over time to catchup with the social norms. Recent changes to New Zealand Privacy Legislation seeks to protect the individual from disclosing anything they do not want shared. This means that providing a platform, or encouraging the sharing of social interactions through social media, may make the educator liable for the disclosure of private information among their learners. Educators must take responsibility to ensure that they follow the legal advice provided to them by the school, college or tertiary institution.

Social Factors

If all these factors are putting you off exploring social media as a tool for educators, you are right to pause for thought. A final issue, harder to quantify, is the social impact of social media, particularly on youth and the ability to create and sustain positive self-image and relationships. Mainstream media is keen to report instances of cyberbullying, sometimes resulting in suicides or self-harm. The uncontrollable and very public nature of victimisation through social media makes it hard to identify and prevent. Even moving schools does not solve the problem when the playground is a digital open space for anyone who wishes to take part. The social platform providers themselves have proven themselves to be inadequate guardians of the users’ wellbeing. Nor does banning mobile devices from places of learning work particularly well either. The onus is on educators to educate their learners on how to become digitally literate and responsible digital citizens.

So before you go…

So before you embrace social media as a classroom tool, I would suggest you watch the Social Dilemma 6, a docudrama available on Netflix, or search out your own deeper understanding of the way these tools have been designed. Remember they are often free to use, because you and your students are the product that these companies are selling. It’s the individual’s data profile that has value and we, as educators have a duty to ensure that we do not exploit that for a short-term win.

If your school, college or university has a digital learning strategy, and I don’t mean having a VLE and insisting that every course has a presence, but rather a desire to ensure that digital literacy is at the heart of the learning, then you are at an advantage. If your institution does not have such a strategy you may want to develop one. FLANZ may be able to help you to do that. If you are interested email me at

That is the last of a series of four blogs on social media use in education.

Next blog will explore the world of Virtual Reality and its promises.

Dr Simon Paul Atkinson (Profile)

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

  2. Statistica Data
  3. Prensky, M. On the Horizon. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” Pages 1-6. Accessed April 1, 2021.
  4. White, D. S., & Cornu, A. L. (2011). Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday.
  5. 1.4 Trillion :
  6. The Social Dilemma 2020 – Documentary/Docudrama – Netflix. Dir: Jeff Orlowski. (1h 34m)
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