'I worry about the depersonalising effect of screens'

What is it about a phone or a screen that leads people to communicate in a way that would be utterly unacceptable face to face?


Screen time: How much time are your school's pupils spending on their iPads?

I worry about screens. Phones, social media, emails: I worry about the foolish belief that, behind a screen, you’re hidden. 

This worries me both as a teacher and as a mum, as well as an auntie and a friend, as a wife and as a daughter. Because I have seen the impact of this depersonalisation of communication on our most vulnerable.

What is it about a phone or a screen that leads people to communicate in a way that would be utterly unacceptable face to face?

Depersonalised decisions

I think the answer is that people feel that the screen protects them – that they won’t have to get into any challenging conversations. We can depersonalise decisions in this way and can assume that viewpoints and decisions will be accepted, with no questions asked. 

Yet how can it ever be right to email over a decision taken by external professionals, for example, which would usually be challenged and deemed unacceptable? I’m talking about decisions such as feedback from court hearings, parental custody changes, the sudden relocation of a family, a “no” response to a funding request, a summary end to benefits because a form was filled in slightly incorrectly (when no support was given in the first place). In all these cases, a face-to-face discussion would have been more appropriate.

How can it ever be right for one child to make another feel so worthless, so hated that they are damaged to the point of not wanting to be here any more? Ah, that’s right: because it was done through a phone or a tablet. The impact can’t be seen, so therefore it isn’t real.

How can it be right for a caregiver to be told by email that they won’t receive any benefit for their child because the impact of their disability isn’t significant or long-lasting enough (yet)? Ah, that’s right: because the sender isn’t in the room when the email is received, so misses the impact of their message.

No real meaning

It’s a bit like the point in Peter Pan when the audience is told to clap if they believe in fairies: if we all clap our hands, we can all believe that the screen will protect us, that we are safe and immune from judgements, and that words sent out electronically don’t have any real meaning.

Until a child is removed from a school place with no notice and with no adult being allowed to be their voice.

Until a funding refusal is made with no time allowed for a response, leaving a family in poverty and desperation.

Until a child sends a prank message and a parent or carer reads it and removes their phone.

Until a young person believes what is said about them and starts self-harming.

Until we – as educators, carers, parents, professional shapers of minds – stand up and say: “Let’s talk.”

The author is a teacher

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