A Virtual Safe Zone: Teachers Supporting Teenage Student Resilience Through Social Media in Times of War

July 2018

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education Volume 73, Pages 35-42


We examine how teacher-student communication through social network technologies may support student resilience during an ongoing war (i.e., the 2014 Israel-Gaza war). Based on student responses from open-ended surveys (N = 68), five content categories of emotional support were identified: caring, reassuring, emotion sharing, belonging, and distracting. The mere existence of continuous online contact with teachers also contributed to resilience perceptions. Interviews with 11 secondary school teachers revealed three main purposes for this communication: (a) delivering emotional support to students, (b) monitoring their distress; and (c) maintaining civilized norms of discourse. Practical implications and theoretical contributions are discussed.

During ongoing wars and in areas of intensive warfare, access to school premises is limited, as teachers and students are obliged to remain close to bomb shelters for security and safety reasons. Maintaining face-to-face teacher-student contact is often not an option in those circumstances. The question then arises: How can teachers support student resilience in active war zones and during an active, continuous war when schools are closed? In the current work, we report on spontaneous teacher initiatives to initiate and maintain teacher-student contact through ubiquitous social media communication technologies, as an alternative pathway.

Reaching out to students in need occurs not only during the school year, but also when teachers recognize that their students might experience prolonged psychological stress. During the 2014 Israel-Gaza war, which took place during the school summer recess, it was estimated that more than half of Israeli adolescents who lived in war-afflicted areas communicated with their teachers via WhatsApp and Facebook (Ophir, Rosenberg, Asterhan, & Schwarz, 2016). Research in the general population showed that SNTs were the dominant communication channels during the Israel-Gaza war, and this communication was perceived by users as having a calming influence (Malka, Ariel, Avidar, & Hen-Levi, 2015).

These findings complement documented advantages of SNTs as efficient communication channels for exchanging live information during times of disaster and crisis (Palen, Vieweg, Liu, & Hughes, 2009). The ubiquitous availability of SNTs contributes to efficient coordination of response and even recovery efforts in times of large-scale disasters (Liu, Palen, Sutton, Hughes, & Vieweg, 2008).

For this purpose, we examined both teachers' and students' points of view on SNT communication during an active, ongoing war (i.e., the 2014, Israel-Gaza war). We focused on Israeli teachers and secondary school students who live within 45 kilometers from the Israel-Gaza border (e.g., the cities of Sderot, Be'er-Sheva, or Ofakim). Among Israeli civilians, this area was exposed to warrelated events most. For two consecutive months, cities in this area were hit by approximately 4500 rockets in total and civilians had very limited time to find shelter (i.e., 15e90 seconds, depending on the exact distance from the Gaza border).

From the students' point of view, we inquired how SNT communication with their teachers helped them during the war, using 'real' examples and stories. From the teachers’ point of view, we inquired whether and how teachers leveraged SNT communication to try and create feelings of resilience among their students? What were their attitudes towards SNT usage with their students and what might be the benefits as well as the shortcomings of SNT communication in times of war?

The data for this study were collected during an active, ongoing war. In order not to miss the time limited window for data collection, on the one hand, but to ensure rich data of sufficient quality, while taking into consideration both security issues and ethical limitations, two different data collection strategies were combined: Online open-ended survey questions and semi-structured, one-on one interviews.

The current study was conducted in the midst of an active, ongoing war (i.e., the 2014 Israel-Gaza war) to examine the components of teacher-student SNT communication in times of crisis and how these components may have played a role in contributing to student resilience. Data was collected from the teacher, as well as from the student perspective. Together, they demonstrate how the traditional roles of teachers in trauma intervention is extended to the online sphere. Analyses of the teacher interview data revealed three main motives for engaging in SNT-based communication with their students: (a) to maintain civilized norms of online discourse in a stressful and emotional period; (b) to monitor student distress; and (c) to deliver emotional support to their students when they need it. The data from the student perspective further revealed that this emotional support was delivered and experienced in a range of different ways: By showing they cared for student well-being, by giving explicit reassurance, through reciprocate emotion sharing, by providing a sense of belonging and identification, and by distracting students from stressful thoughts and events. In addition to these more explicit aspects of teacher support, the present study also showed that the mere existence of continuous online contact was perceived as an important form of support in and by itself. According to students, the very existence of the online relationship brought them closer to their teachers and helped them feel more secure. Students emphasized their appreciation of teachers who communicated with them through SNTs, “even though they were not required to do so”, and even when this communication did not directly refer to war-related discussion topics. They described these teachers as present, available, and personally interested in them.

We believe the current study demonstrates the psychosocial potential of teacher-student SNT communication in times of war. The findings are especially noteworthy in light of common warnings against the presence of adult teachers in teenagers’ online social networks and official policies that restrict student-teacher social media communication (e.g., Hershkovitz & Forkosh-Baruch, 2013; Asterhan & Rosenberg, 2015). Even though it is certainly not without pitfalls, the present study highlights the potentially positive impact of teacher-student contact through these open, informal communication channels and how it may strengthen student resilience in times of crises.

Updated: May. 16, 2018