The Social Media Helpline is now closed. Explore this site, a free public service of The Net Safety Collaborative, to see what we learned from providing a social media helpline to US schools.
As the first step in developing a national-level service for US schools, the Social Media Helpline launched its pilot in August 2015 in the state of California, which had about 2/3 the number of schools the United Kingdom has. The UK’s Professionals Online Safety Helpline, serving school and other professionals working with youth, was the model for our helpline. It was our colleagues there and the outstanding help service at Netsafe in New Zealand, keen to grow an international network of such services, who inspired the development of a US-based one. They had reached out to us for contacts with the US-based social media platforms when problems arose outside the US, and we all felt a US helpline would be a valuable addition, as would an association of helplines around the world.
Net Family News Inc., then a 16-year-old national nonprofit organization and one of the earliest participants in the US Internet safety field, launched the helpline in partnership with then-school-serving nonprofit #ICANHELP, working with Duerr Evaluation, an independent evaluator focused on school programs, all of us based in California. In the spring of 2016, that work led to the formation of a new youth-serving 501c3 nonprofit organization, The Net Safety Collaborative, founded and directed by Anne Collier of Net Family News.
Working with schools
The service was originally branded iCanHelpline.org because of #ICANHELP’s expertise in K-12 education, focus on student leadership and great relationships with school and district leaders throughout California and increasingly in other states. When we went national, we rebranded as the more generic SMH for instant recognition of the service we provided. Even then, interestingly, because schools had been dealing with social media issues literally on their own, school officials struggled to understand. Even after we said, “When you have a problem involving student harm in social media, just pick up the phone and call us,” we often got puzzled looks, requests for explanation and the common question about whether we provided professional development. Those of us without a K-12 background couldn’t imagine why anyone would need professional training to give us a call when they had a problem. Then we learned this is an important marketing tool when doing business in/with K-12.
The business model
We learned a lot more than that too, working with schools and getting advice from people in government, business, education, philanthropy, social impact investing and our own nonprofit sphere. For its first year, the helpline was piloted with financial support from the Digital Trust Foundation, with additional support from Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Twitter, Yahoo and other social media companies.
After the first year, we moved from the traditional nonprofit model of providing a free service through philanthropic funding to what appeared to be a more sustainable one of offering schools or districts low-cost annual subscriptions that would never exceed $300/school. Advice from a seasoned investor in education technology was that schools should be charged for the service and that, under a paid model, the helpline would be able to keep the cost to schools down as the number of signups grew.
A shifting social backdrop
Meanwhile, the societal backdrop to the pilot was changing quickly. Besides growing social discontent with the social media platforms after a surprising presidential election, the level of school violence in the US seemed to be growing. School needs were changing. Society was triaging, and funding was, understandably, going to meeting the most urgent need. More and more state governments and attorneys general were starting school safety tiplines (for more on US society’s response to school violence, click here).
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