At Ascham this past week we held an excellent CyberSafety Forum, led by Susan McLean, well-known for her no-nonsense approach to how we protect children from the dangers on online activity. Her presentation and the subsequent discussion, while looking at all the possibilities for online engagement which lie in wait for young people, had a few simple messages – parents need to be aware of what is out there, parents need to be involved with what their children do online, and parents need to be prepared to say “no”: “no” to underage use of Facebook, “no” to unlimited access to the internet, “no” to online technology in private spaces like bedrooms.
Undoubtedly, there is much that is good about social media and the opportunities that easy connectivity brings; they are here to stay, and on balance – provided that we use them wisely and teach our children to do the same – then they can be a positive addition to our lives. When parents see how much danger and damage that lies within them when they are NOT used wisely, however, they are quite rightly shocked into action, and it is together, armed with the same messages and the same firm boundaries, that as schools and as parents we can work together most effectively to help train and educate young people in how to manage this aspect of their lives and to protect themselves and others from the cruelties and harshnesses into which the online space can descend when it is unboundaried, unmonitored and unregulated (as – to our shame as a society – it often is).
But our young people can be a source of pride in this respect too. A comment piece in last week’s Sydney Morning Herald from a Year 11 girl called for her peers to wake up to the damage that ‘selfies’ – those pictures of oneself, taken often in sexually provocative poses and posted online – can do. And when I heard two of our senior girls speak with an interviewer yesterday about how they managed social media – how they recognised the dangers (of timewasting, of inappropriate communications, of the dangers to their digital image) I was really proud of them. Admittedly, our girls at school are the product of an education in which we stress the need to be respectful of self and respectful of others, and responsible for self as well as responsible for others; we certainly want them to learn appropriate behaviour, and we expect them to do so. Teenagers in their early years, of course, will also make mistakes – sometimes huge and damaging ones – partly because they need to push boundaries, to test them, as a step in their growing up process; partly because they have yet to develop the cognitive, emotional and social skills necessary for them to be able to manage themselves and their relationships without making a mess of it. (While ensuring that the consequences they face are enough to ensure deep and lasting learning, as well as behavioural change, let us not be unremittingly harsh on them – adults mess up too and have to repair their lives.) The senior girls who spoke about their use of online connections have learned how to use the medium, they understand its potential and its pitfalls, and they have acquired a genuine sense of balance and perspective. They know that real life matters far, far more than online life.
The education of young people is not just about their Maths and their Geography, important though these are; education is about preparation for life, for being a strong, well-rounded, decent, valuable human being. Schools, parents and our wider society have a joint and collective role to ensure that we are laying the groundwork. And one of the privileges of working with young people is seeing the magnificent outcomes.