Call for social media to be taught in schools amid online mental health concerns

Expert says online platforms must be embraced in order to ensure their responsible use

A UAE expert said there would be benefits to teaching social media use at schools. Photo: Xavier Lorenzo
Powered by automated translation

Schools and parents should embrace social media and incorporate it within learning to ensure young people use platforms openly and safely, a leading expert has told The National.

Social media use has been linked with a decline in mental health, with the Arab Youth Survey 2023 finding that 60 per cent of young Arabs thought it was having a negative impact on their mental well-being.

Just under three-quarters of those surveyed, 74 per cent, said they were struggling to disconnect from social media.

But Brilliant Mhlanga, professor of strategic communication and media at Abu Dhabi University, said we "cannot reject" social media and must "embrace it".

Social media has huge potential to help the education system
Brilliant Mhlanga

Prof Mhlanga, who has written extensively on digital and social media, told The National: "Every generation is defined by its history of tools and technologies.

"Social media should be considered as the technology and a tool of the time. We cannot reject, but embrace it."

He said schools and governments need to work with social media organisations to "infuse" these platforms "into schools and universities as learning devices so they can be embraced as part and parcel of our culture".

But, he noted, it is critical that teenagers "know when and how to stop using them".

"Social media has huge potential to help the education system because it is one thing that young people are prepared to pick up and embrace without anyone motivating them to do so," he continued.

“If it has that potential, why not harness that in order for us to be able to shape the learning processes we want?”

He also urged parents "to loosen up a bit", so children do not feel the need to hide from them and use social media in an unproductive way.

Prof Mhlanga's comments come after New York Mayor Eric Adams stated that social media could soon be viewed as being equally harmful to society as smoking in public.

He declared it a public health hazard because companies such as TikTok, YouTube and Facebook were fuelling a mental health crisis, according to a report in the Washington Post.

Lynn Sutton, TikTok’s head of Outreach and Partnerships, Trust and Safety EMEA was at TikTok's MENAT Youth Mental Health Summit in Dubai on Tuesday.

She said the social media platform aimed to protect people by having safeguards in place.

“Our community guidelines are designed to ensure the platform remains a positive and inclusive space for everyone. We take action to address potential challenges,” said Ms Sutton.

“We diversify content within the newsfeed. If we see a trend is happening again, and again, and again, or something is picking up popularity, we have detection models that will take that, then go and do an investigation."

Take social media breaks

Her comments also came with a warning, as she urged people not to overuse social media and said they "think about partnerships in education".

“We want TikTok to be a part of people's life, but it shouldn't be all of your life," she said.

"You should have healthy habits that allow you to disconnect and go outside. We've done campaigns that remind people to put down TikTok and get outside."

Lee Hole, principal at Dubai British School Jumeira, which will open doors later this year, said schools could not be given sole responsibility for educating children on social media, but stressed the importance of teaching critical thinking.

He said the issue was complex and could not be as simple as adding social media to the curriculum.

“We have a shared responsibility as schools, as families, as society in general, to raise awareness,” said Mr Hole.

"I don't disagree with the fact that social media is something young people need to have a better awareness of. I think these social media platforms have a responsibility and I would say that some of these platforms can be doing more.

“That being said, I think in schools, one of the things that we can do is actually develop their critical thinking, so they do not believe everything they're seeing on social media."

Maitha Mohamed, content creator and a member of TikTok's safety advisory council, said she suggested schools teach children how to create useful content.

She said this was now in the trial phase at some schools in the UAE.

Jana Bou Reslan, lecturer of Educational Psychology and a content creator, said: "Engaging parents is paramount to creating safe digital communities for the younger generation.

"Parents' insights are valuable in not only creating important safety processes, but also in guiding how the youth can interact with digital platforms in a healthy and responsible manner."

Updated: March 28, 2024, 9:47 AM