Working with teenagers, a considerable amount of the educational discussion about social media focuses on the negative; the time-wasting, the distraction from study, the unhealthy preoccupation with a screen rather than more balanced fresh air and exercise, the reputational risk of posting unwise comments, and the dangers of cyber-bullying. These are all very real issues, and the perils are not to be dismissed lightly; barely a week goes by without the media reporting a traumatic story of online bullying, some of which have ended tragically in teenage suicide. Last week’s survey reporting that a third of teenagers have been affected by cyber-bullying was accompanied by the story of Natalie Farzaneh, a teenager from York, whose experiences at the hands of bullies online led her to self-harm and to consider taking her own life.
Natalie managed to turn her life around, and is now a motivational speaker, speaking out against bullies on the internet; her mission, as is ours in schools, is to educate young people about the harm that they can do online, and how they can protect themselves and others. This is an incredibly important message … but it is not the only message about online social activity, and sometimes we risk losing the positive amongst the warnings. I have been very struck recently by the positive effects of social media, used wisely, and we need to remember this too.
When I went to Bangladesh last month with Plan UK, I felt that I had an obligation to share what I saw and experienced with the wider world, and social media was the most obvious platform. I blogged in advance (and afterwards), I tweeted regularly, and I posted to Facebook. The effects were remarkable; since returning, I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have said that they followed my story with interest, and really felt as though they connected with what I was living during my journey. Posts I made were retweeted and shared, and have appeared on a number of other websites, including the Gabbitas website. One mother explained that she had been reading out one of my posts when her 6 year old overheard it, and it prompted a deep and important discussion on child domestic workers. A university friend messaged me while I was there, asking about the purchasing power of the taka, so he could understand better what I was describing. Someone else has applied for a job at Plan UK as a direct result of reading my blog.
We need to be reminded from time to time of the power of the internet to connect and to do good in the world. Perhaps if we speak out strongly and honestly about the good and bad facets of the online world, then we will maximise the former and minimise the latter. The world needs us to build positive relationships; let us put our energies into ensuring that we do.