Hordes of children across the country are heading back to classrooms, and experts say social networking and smartphones are radically changing the whole back-to-school experience.
"It's almost like multimedia friendship," said Ester Cole, psychologist and former chair of the Psychology Foundation of Canada. "It means children have a magnified exposure to information."
Cole says social media has become an intrinsic part of schooling. Today's students have more avenues to explore than any other generation before them — and in some ways they'll be better off, she says.
But there's also a negative side to the gadgets they're carrying and the networks they're building at a young age.
Children get bombarded by photos and images all summer, Cole says, which can become a point of conversation and help them make new friends come the start of a new school year.
"It's a way kids can get their timelines straight and help them feel connected," she said.
While some might be quick to denounce kids carrying smartphones and using social media, Nora Spinks, chief executive officer at the Vanier Institute of the Family, says there are some practical bonuses.
"It's an easier way to stay connected to your friends and avoid negative situations," Spinks said.
A few years ago, young girls might have called each other first thing in the morning to pick out a wardrobe for their first day back. Now, much of that can be done much more efficiently through text messages, Spinks says.
If there's a bully waiting on a street corner, kids can text each other to avoid that situation, too.
"Then for older students, social media can reduce the stresses of 'How am I going to find my friend in the new high school?'" Spinks said.
"Social media and smartphones allow kids to take that stress and set it aside."
That practicality crosses over to parents, too.
"You can check in and find out if your kids got home OK, and they can text you if they're feeling particularly anxious or particularly excited," Spinks said. "It can help the whole family."
'The disadvantage with all this social media out there now is students have to run the gauntlet in both face-to-face relationships and in what people are saying on social media about them' — Nora Spinks, chief executive officer at the Vanier Institute of the Family
But as is often the case with social media, the positive aspects come with some pitfalls.
"The disadvantage with all this social media out there now is students have to run the gauntlet in both face-to-face relationships and in what people are saying on social media about them," Spinks said.
Then there are all the things kids learn at school that don't come from a lecture or a book — like face-to-face communication and the way people interact with one another.
Kathleen Hegadoren, professor of psychology at the University of Alberta and Canada Research Chair for stress disorders in women, laments the absence of those non-verbal cues students just can't get from a screen.
She says students who post something socially reprehensible online won't get the immediate feedback they need from their social group to fix their behaviour.
"Whereas if you're playing out in a field and you make a mistake, you get feedback right away," she said. "How do you learn social cues if it isn't through face-to-face interactions?"
"I don't think you learn grace, manners or subtle social amenities online."
Hegadoren says the wealth of information shoved at children through social media might also add to "baseline stress," and give the illusion that there are more things for them to fret about than actually exist.
"But they'll also probably have better technological skills than any older people," she jokes.
The business of popularity
Then there's the materialism that's sure to rear its head, creating a divide among students and social groups.
"Having a smartphone and being connected also infers a certain level of socio-economic status," Hegadoren said. "It becomes more than just a communication tool — it's about status and belonging. And whenever you have that, you have exclusions."
In generations past, students might have been ostracized for their fashion style or hobbies, she says. Now, students can be ostracized because of the method they use to connect with their peers, which is a culture of social interaction that hasn't existed until now, she says.
"It changes the dynamics of interaction," she said. "You can't be part of some friendships because you don't have the tool to be part of them."
It's a connected world
Though some parents may worry about the ultra-connected world their kids are exploring, Spinks says young people are better suited for it than people may think.
"Those of us that never went through this find it unnatural and unnerving," Spinks said. "But kids today don't know any different. If you're 12 today, you grew up with smartphones. For kids, this is their own reality."
She says social media and smartphones haven't completely changed the back-to-school experience — just added another facet to it.
"And every generation has a different experience," she said.
Cole agrees, adding that there are "entire generations of children that don't know a world before social media."
"It's not a substitute, but it's a new modality of communication," she said. "But I would like to think it's the same intrinsic experience we all go through."