Tips for Cultivating Healthy School Friendships Online

To promote cross-group friendships, schools can offer affinity groups, interest-based clubs, speakers, facilitated lunches, read-alouds, game or movie nights, and other structured, inclusive activities that give kids a reason to meet up online.

We know friendships are more likely to grow to be healthy and strong with in-person contact rather than just social media interaction. How can we help students maintain healthy boundaries and patterns of interaction at a distance? 

Not all social media is bad. If kids are using social media to FaceTime a friend or work on a social justice issue or connect with a grandparent, that’s a lot different than just passively scrolling through other kids’ feeds while feeling bad about yourself. I’d also be concerned about a child spending a tremendous amount of time doomscrolling through grim news feeds. Returning to the idea that kids are hypersensitive right now, experiencing intense emotions, and perhaps acting more impulsively because they’re more anxious or want attention, we want to focus on preventing them from blowing up their friendships.

Schools can remind kids to sit on their hands long enough to consider whether what they’re about to post or say could come back to haunt them or could hurt someone else. They can urge kids to set themselves up for success by removing technology from their bedrooms or refraining from interacting when they’re tired. They can have class contracts with agreed upon norms for behavior. They can be told that the school will hold them accountable for out-of-school actions that end up bleeding into the digital classroom.

The goal is to create a culture where kids want to look out for the more vulnerable among them, whether that’s a new student or a child who may have some social skills deficits. 

Some strategies have been proven effective for harnessing the motivating power of friendship for learning. Can these efforts translate to distance learning? How?

This is where teachers can be aware of and sensitive to children with different strengths and challenges. When kids complain about themselves or someone else, I like to ask them to come up with two strengths for every so-called weakness. A kid with attention issues might bring dynamism and energy to the classroom. A kid who is distractible might have sudden bursts of insight. If you can see that a student is being ostracized or getting in their own way—maybe making funny faces or getting annoyingly off-topic on Zoom—talk to them individually about how you can support them. Try to point out their strengths authentically in front of peers, too.

Work with their parents as well. Now more than ever, this is going to have to be a home-school partnership. If you use Zoom breakout rooms, pop in frequently to ensure no one is hurling insults or dominating a project. On a broader level, make sure the books you read, the videos you show, the examples you use, and speakers you bring in reflect the diversity in your classroom in a positive way.