The digital age. A potential source for constructive debate, but only if we behave with respect.

The digital age provides an immediate means of expressing ideas and promoting debate. But it needs to be managed in a manner that is respectful of others.

The digital age provides an immediate means of expressing ideas and promoting debate. But it needs to be managed in a manner that is respectful of others.

 

My good friend Satish in India recently entered the digital age. When I first met Satish in 1996 he was very much an advocate of the simple life, eschewing much of modern technology, and urging us all to turn our attention back to living in harmony with the natural World that we are so sadly neglecting and abusing. These are still the principles that guide his life, but on recent occasions when we have met I notice that he is seldom separated from his electronic tablet.

I am not, of course suggesting in any way that the maintenance of sound ecological principles or advocacy of a more resilient and sustainable lifestyle is incompatible with modern technology. Many of us have embraced the use of computers for much of our work, leisure and communication, but I suspect that we often do so whilst giving limited thought to the potential influence and impact of the systems that we are using. Fortunately, there are some users of digital media who are constantly questioning its place in our wider lives and certainly in respect of the education of children. Satish is one such individual.

On a couple of occasions recently Satish has drawn my attention to interesting, and at times disturbing news items related to the use and abuse of technology. This morning I received an email from him (I used to only receive hand written letters until a year or so ago) pointing me in the direction of a BBC news item about the prevalence of cyber bullying (http://www.bbc.com/news/education-30043084). This has been an area of debate amongst teachers and the general public for some time and appears to be an unpleasant phenomenon that is on the increase.

Bullying has been a particularly vicious factor in schools, probably for as long as they have been in existence.  Over the years the lives of many children have been blighted by those who find the means to exert control or wield a malicious power over them. Through identifying and exaggerating difference or exploiting perceived weaknesses the bullies have often made the lives of their victims miserable, and have exploited their position of power, often as a means of masking their own inadequacies. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that most bullies have low self-esteem and seek a false position of authority through the control of their victims. I recall occasions as a teacher and certainly as a head teacher, when I was required to address the bullying behaviour of certain individuals, and to find the means of supporting those who had suffered at their hands. However, cyber bullying is a relatively new phenomenon and not one that I experienced either as a child or in my role as a teacher.

The news item singled out by Satish reports the work of a committee overseen by a Member of the UK Parliament, Graham Stuart, who suggests that teachers are failing to address this issue and that cyber bullying has become a critical matter in schools. He is reported as saying that:-

“Schools have a part to play in ensuring young people are safe and are kept away from the misery and depression which online abuse can bring about.”

However, he also acknowledges that many children are far ahead of their teachers in understanding the use of social media, a concept with which they have grown up, and that there is a need for teachers to receive additional training in this area.

I am sure that Mr Stuart is quite right in this assertion, and I am aware that for many of us who completed our formal education in the pre-digital age, we often feel that we are left behind by the younger generation. However, I do feel that it is important that there is some recognition that the issue of cyber bullying is not one faced solely by children and schools.

There have been many instances reported in the media of the abuse of social media aimed at adults whose opinions happen to differ from those of others. On July 16th, I wrote on this blog about Rachel Tomlinson a head teacher in Nelson, Lancashire, who sent a letter to her pupils praising them for their positive attitudes and friendly disposition, which she valued as much as their academic attainments (Thank you for a letter of appreciation). She had gained some attention in the national press, but was also subjected to abuse through social media by some rather sad people who felt that head teachers should not concern themselves with pupils becoming good people, but should rather be cramming them with knowledge.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the means through which this is expressed, and the language that is used, can either add to a constructive debate or become a form of abuse. The actions of Rachel Tomlinson having gained some national attention were always likely to promote comment. Sadly, the availability of digital platforms, such as Facebook and twitter enabled some less than respectful outpourings to be made by individuals who chose to hide behind pseudonyms, presumably because they lacked the courage to write under their own names.

Those of us who as adults choose to use digital outlets as a means of sharing ideas and promoting debate, such as I am doing right now, have a responsibility to ensure that we do so in a manner that is respectful and considered. Whilst the report issued by Mr Stuart and his committee has identified a genuine problem to be addressed in schools, it is essential that we recognise that many children who are involved in the misuse of social media are simply imitating the behaviours of adults that are often reported and excused in the media. Teachers and parents are facing a new challenge in this digital age, but the responsibility to face these difficulties must be shared by a much wider community if it is to be seriously addressed.