Navigating the social media minefield

Schools tend to be cautious about social media, and with real reason. In school, we see it in daily use amongst young people: schools, remember, see many hundreds – thousands, even – of young people in close proximity to one another, and as educators in schools, we gain an insight into their lives that is quite unique. It is a different perspective from that of parents, who know and love the special characteristics of their children, and who see them day in and day out in an environment which is very individual to their family; great schools should indeed also value, support and extend these individual characteristics, but they add too the essential dimension of the collective – young people together, learning to live together and work together, in preparation for their life in society and the contribution that they will learn to make to the world. While they progress along this path, these young people experiment, investigate and try out what the world has to offer, and social media is undeniably a part of this. In schools, we see this happening on a large scale, and can as a result draw various conclusions. Here are a few …

Social media as a concept is extremely positive. The history of the world is full of human conflict that can be put down to lack of communication and fundamental misunderstandings, and for most of this history, no way has existed to overcome the barriers of our natural world – time, distance, geography. Now, with the internet – and in particular a means of using the internet which enables immediacy of communication – we have the potential as the human race to overcome these misunderstandings and to grow in awareness of how other people live and work, to the ultimate benefit of us all. When fires ravage the Tasman peninsula, not only can people on the ground communicate and free themselves from danger, but people over the world can be alert to their predicament and offer support, both practical and emotional. When an Indian woman is gangraped and subsequently dies from her horrific injuries, the whole world can communicate, strongly and unequivocally, its horror, and can help to change both the law and the culture of her home culture. Social media played a tremendous role in the Arab Spring; it plays a smaller but nonetheless significant role on a daily basis for individuals who use it to connect with friends, grow relationships, and keep up to date, sensibly, with what is going on in the world.

Social media in reality has many dangers and pitfalls. It can be a huge timewaster. It can dominate lives and become an obsession if not held in check and in its proper place – the virtual world can never, remember, replace the real world. It can skew an understanding of the world rather than enriching it; computers, after all, are only as good as the data-input allows. Make poor choices of who to follow on Twitter, and you will have a very odd view of the world. Moreover, the very immediacy which brings so many benefits can also drown the user in banality; when people are indiscriminating in what they communicate online, and when other people are indiscriminating about what they read and soak up, the result can be a sea of inanity. At worst, it can be used to abuse, bully and torment. In all of these cases, however, it is the human perpetrator who is at fault. The immediacy of social media may accentuate the issue; it is the human behaviour that underpins the action of writing and sending that needs to be addressed

With this in mind, parents and schools need to lead – very firmly – by example. This is true in everything, of course, but is particularly important in situations where lack of adult guidance can lead to personal danger. We would not dream of allowing our young children loose on public highways without us holding their hand and educating them about road safety, and we recognise that this is a process that may take several years. Social media can be seen as the internet equivalent of the public highway; if you did not know the rules of the public road, you would learn them before you sought to educate your children, and you would practise before you allowed your children to proceed. This said, you would also recognise that children needed to be able to move around in their lives, and need to learn to navigate roads. So too it is with social media. If as educators and parents we can discover and learn about social media from the inside, if we can test its boundaries and work out what works and what doesn’t, then we are far better placed to be able to help guide our young people.

Life without the internet and the connectivity it brings is almost inconceivable today, and we can afford to embrace this as a positive if we are alert to the negatives and seek actively to prepare our young people to avoid the dangers and pitfalls. Social media has a tremendous amount to offer our world if we can bring our human wisdom to bear upon it and construct strong and safe boundaries around it. Onwards with the task of education …


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