teachers

It’s time to take social media seriously; and it’s not all fun and games

Safebook - staying safe online

You may read this post title and think ‘oh here she goes again’ but actually today I’m taking a different view on social media. As someone who whole heartedly believes in the benefits of social media, I also whole heartedly believe in the power of social media. And power does not necessarily mean good things.

With a generation of children and young adults who have grown up in an extremely social world, we’re looking at a dynamic outside of the school environment that we’ve never had to deal with before. A world where a small amount of playground teasing turns into a an online world of hatred and constant torment. Where hideous trends like ‘hot or not’ are causing huge amounts of already self-conscious teens to rely on their ‘friends’ to rate their appearance. And where young girls still in their school uniforms are being allowed to behave like 20-somethings flaunting themselves to whoever chooses to engage with them.

There have been so many – too many – instances over the last year alone where we’ve heard about another young person having taken their own life because of constant online torment.

I previously referred to social media and the ‘surround sound effect’. Well here it is in all it’s ugly glory – surround sound bullying.

And in my opinion, those who should be taking responsibility are shying away from what needs to be addressed, immediately. And that’s not through lack of desire, I believe it’s through lack of knowledge of whats really going on; perceived lack of ability to do anything about it (how do you control the whole internet right?), and genuine fear of the repercussions of taking a stand. But, how many cases of online bullying that have ultimately led to a young person feeling that they have no choice but to take their own life, does it take before we stand up and properly do something about it.

So what’s the solution? First we have to really understand the problem. What has led to a culture where this type of activity is able to harbour online seemingly uncontrolled? I believe there are three key issues:

  • Lack of supervision and moderation: We wouldn’t allow our children outside during break time with their fellow classmates, left to do entirely as they choose, without any adult supervision. This is because they don’t necessarily know the dangers that are out there, they often don’t know where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are, and sometimes they need someone to turn to if they need a helping hand. So why are they left unsupervised online? Lack of supervision and moderation of online conversations means a small amount of ‘harmless’ teasing manifests itself into a daily torrent of abuse that the individual is unable to get away from. This is unacceptable.
  • A culture that says this is ok: This type of activity is only allowed to manifest itself for as long as its being accepted. Until someone really questions it and take a stand, it will continue. Without education, young adults will continue to behave as they currently doing, as they are naive to the longer term repercussions. This is unacceptable.
  • Social networks not taking responsibility: There was once a time not so long ago where Facebook was quick to shut you down if the cover photo on your fan page had text covering greater than 25% of its area. They were quick to spot that. But they don’t seem too quick to spot potentially harmful messages posted between members in the network it created. I understand that policing social networks is a seemingly impossible task – where does the responsibility begin or end? But, doing nothing? This is unacceptable.

So there’s the problem; how do we find a solution? In my opinion three key groups have to stand up and take action: parents, schools and the social networks themselves. Now I am probably in no position to preach about what should or shouldn’t be done – I don’t have children, I’m not a head teacher and I certainly don’t own a social network. But one day I will have children, I have a little sister (although she’d hate for me to call her that) who has grown up in this very social world I’m talking about, I’ve so far spent the majority of my life in a school, and I like to think I know a lot about social networks.

So here’s what I think needs to be done:

Parents
It is the responsibility of a parent to educate, protect and encourage the best from their children. Just as for brands and companies, the birth of social media brought crazy new parameters to communication and a new overwhelming world to which parents had little to no experience in. They didn’t understand it, didn’t know what to tell their children about it, and believed it to be merely another form of communication. Years on, many parents are on these social networks and understand how their children use them – even policing them from afar. But what about those that don’t?

Parents need to take the time to educate their children on what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to engaging in social media. They need to teach them how to feel safe; when to bring an adult into a situation – when to hit that ‘report’ button.

How can we hope for things to change if parents don’t take this first step towards protecting their children?

Schools
But it’s not all resting on the shoulders of parents. Some schools are taking action in the area of online safety – and it’s good – but it’s not enough. Talks are being held with both parents and children, but they are not compulsory and they are assuming a certain amount of knowledge of social media to start with.

But it’s not all bad news, Childnet International are a non-profit organisation aiming to make the internet ‘a great and safe place for children’. Aimed at young people, teachers and parents, the organisation aims to do exactly what is needed in this area – educate and provide the necessary tools to keep young people safe online.

Friday saw Safer Internet Day where a number of schools around the country dedicated part of their curriculum to educating their pupils about the potential dangers of the social world, and how to stay safe. This is good – and some of the initiatives were really excellent – but this shouldn’t fall to one day a year. I’d like to see this as a dedicated curriculum piece throughout the year, from a very young age. With 59% of 11-12 year olds having a social media profile, they need to understand what they are doing from that very age.

And it’s not just about learning how to stay safe – that is really just theory. And it also assumes that ‘staying safe’ means being wary of adults posing as peers. But what about peers? Some of the worst stories we’ve heard over the last year have been due to online bullying by classmates. For this, it’s not about learning to be safe, it’s about there being repercussions for those individuals who assume that hiding behind a keyboard makes their behaviour is ok. These repercussions have to fall under the remit of schools when the event is an extension of what is happening in the school environment.

Social networks themselves
And then finally it’s the responsibility of the networks that are hosting and harbouring these activities. There needs to be greater accountability for the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. And steps in the right direction are being made. Following the inquest into the tragic death of Tallulah Wilson who killed herself after extensive activity on self-harm pages on Tumblr, Culture Secretary Maria Miller is this week unveiling at the cabinet meeting a call for social media companies to transform how they police their sites. This call will see representatives from a host of social networks hopefully form consensus about responsibilities in policing and removing offensive, potentially harmful posts.

It is the likes of these individuals who understand the blurred lines where our offline lives meet our online lives – why is what would be considered beyond unacceptable – even illegal – in an offline environment, are we having to accept as ok in a social environment.

So let’s hope that this drives change; let’s hope social networks stand up and take things seriously, and that legislation is brought in to police social networks better and protect those that are most vulnerable within them. Let’s hope that both parents and schools step up to their responsibilities of education and implementing repercussions. Because it’s not one person’s responsibility – none of these things will work in silo – change will only be seen if all three parties step up and take action to change the culture that we seem to have found ourselves in.

As children leave the likes of Facebook because their parents are on there, it’s no longer enough to be there too. You can’t follow them round the internet, but you can make them smarter internet users. Social media will not go away – and I’m glad about that because of the good that it can bring – but this is an area that needs to change.This will change because it has to. No question about it.

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