Recently, I had the opportunity to present before all of my colleagues on a topic that is very dear to me – the connectedness of adolescents to each other, to their communities and to their schools.
This presentation, styled on the non-famous TedTalk style, was intended to reinforce to all of the educators, support staff and leaders within the school of the important and influential position that they hold in the lives of our students.
According to Pew Research conducted in 2013, 94% of Australian teenagers aged 13 to 17 have a Facebook profile and the average number of ‘friends’ that they have is 425.
How does this level of online connection correlate with the fact that 69,959 young Australians contacted Kids Helpline for counselling support last year?
Surely such a number indicates that too many young people are actually feeling disconnected?
Barely a day goes by where we do not experience the impact of social media on our lives. The reality is that it has transformed much of our society, whether we have participated or not.
Using an article that I saw online as a springboard, I wondered about the pressure that is applied through the growth of social media.
This article is about JT.
I don’t know JT. But I do know that JT has 5000 friends on Facebook – and, according to the news report that I read, he has to (quote) ‘cull friends’ monthly.
I’m sure it wasn’t that long ago when saying that would have got you into the news for a whole different reason.
It was this story about JT in the news a few months ago that got me thinking about the nature of friends and connections.
It got me thinking about the quality of those connections.
… and it got me thinking about our students and the quality of their connections.
Their connections to the global community, connections to their families, connections to our school, to us as their teachers – and most importantly, their connections to each other.
A sense of belonging to a social group is a basic human need that traces back to our very beginnings.
Indeed, animal studies show that social interactions are a powerful driver for many communities. Take these chimpanzees for example – researchers at the Max Plank Institute in Germany found that levels of the hormone oxytocin (a reward hormone in primate and human neural systems) were increased following sessions of mutual grooming. These acts, which can last from a few seconds to hours, were shown to play a central role in facilitating bonding between kin and mating partners.
Are Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat just the modern version of mutual grooming?
Anyone who has observed an adolescent using social media will have seen at least one example of comments or images being posted in search of ‘likes’ – this desire for social reinforcement, for acceptance by our peers. We are witnessing the modern search for the oxytocin hit.
Friends, social media is important to our students and is here to stay.
And yet, I wonder, if we can gather so many connections online – why are not seeing a vast improvement in student levels of connectedness?
Well, as it turns out – its’ not as simple as collecting friends, or even likes.
You see, there is a limit to our social connections and this limit is determined, like many things, by of the size of our brains. Our Social Cortex.
Social anthropologists spent the beginning of this century conducting studies of various primate groups (including humans) to establish if there is a relationship between brain cortex size and the number of social connections that can be effectively maintained.
As it so happens, there is a limit.
Primates that participate in larger social groups have larger relative cortex sizes than those that participate in smaller social groups.
First identified by the English Anthropologist Robin Dunbar and since replicated numerous times by other studies, “Dunbar’s Number” is the measure of connections that a human can effectively maintain and this number comes in at about 150 connections.
Let me repeat that, the limit of social connections that a human brain can effectively maintain is approximately 150.
Robin Dunbar referred to this number as the extent of our tribe.
The first circle here refers to intimates or kin which for most people averages about 5 people.
The next circle, the Super Family, contains 15-25 individuals with whom we are good friends and close confidantes.
The third circle refers to our Clan, 35-55 people with whom we are regularly acquainted. Socially, for adolescents in particular, this is a influential group.
The outermost circle is our Tribe – the people who are familiar to us, we know about them and their lives.
Most students would fit into the tribe circle for teachers and yet, powerfully, most students would count teachers within their clan circle.
In 2005, Dunbar continued his research into social groups to look at the effect of more and less activity and contact between individuals and the impact that this had on emotional closeness.
This graph summarises the findings. Just to clarify, ‘activity’ refers to physical interactions between individuals (meeting for a meal, etc.) whereas ‘contact’ refers to non-physical contact such as through social networks, SMS, etc.
What is interesting about this data is that maintaining contact – talking on the phone, texting, etc. – helped to prevent the decay of emotional closeness in female friendship connections.
Whereas the same interactions reduced the emotional closeness experienced by boys!
And if we look at this section here, “more activity” you can see the profoundly positive effect that active, physical (and this does not necessarily mean sport, just physical in terms of closeness) interactions had on a boys’ sense of emotional closeness.
Think about these results and how they relate to a medium of communication such as Facebook or Instagram. Consider the gender implications that these platforms can have on social connections and emotional closeness.
Social connections are powerful moderators of mood and behaviour in all humans.
As we have seen, the power of social media to build meaningful connections is limited by our brain capacity. Our brain capacity does not, however, limit the damage that can be caused by social media when used the wrong way.
As many of us can attest to, the damage of connections breaking down is all too often amplified by social media.
We’ve seen that Facebook, SnapChat, Instagram cannot increase the number of meaningful connections outward from an individual. However, we should not ignore that each of these connections – meaningful or not – also provide an avenue for the detrimental effects of social rejection, judgement and ridicule that have both physical and emotional impacts
Whilst we can feel powerless to control what often happens out of school hours, there are positives out there..
A global study by American researchers found that school connectedness was the only variable that was protective against eight of the most common health issues in adolescents. Anxiety, Depression, suicidal thoughts, age of first sexual contact – all were moderated positively by school connectedness.
“School” connectedness is often spoken about but may not be well understood.
And working with students in developing their inter-personal skills can often be seen as a side issue, a role that we are not qualified for, or even a distraction from the core business of learning.
The annual ‘Attitudes to School’ survey that is conducted throughout Victorian Public Schools by the Department of Education uses connectedness as a measure of school success.
School connectedness matters. And we have power to influence it.
The reality is that as teachers, we more than likely fall into the clan circle for every student that we teach – that group of 35-55 people who can have influence over an individual through their connection.
When we’re looking for an extra 5% of improvement in academic performance, is it possible we are not fully leveraging the privileged position of influence that we have with our students?
Social media is an unstoppable juggernaut, but when we pare back the issues, the message for each of us is as simple as – to help build strong connections – we just need to focus on our tribe. We are merely human.
Individually, we cannot possibly reach every child in the school. But if we focus on our tribe and invest our time and brain power there? The possibilities are profound.
As social beings, we live and die by the strength of our connections. Please recognise that despite the advent of social media, we still play a fundamental role in fostering connections among and between our students.
I encourage all of you to reflect on the evidence you’ve seen today, go back to your respective areas of this school and…
Embrace your tribe.
They’ll thank you for it.
Connectedness HEd – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires