I taught in colleges for over a decade and, before that, secondary schools for six years. During that time I saw the rise of social media as one of the primary ways that students interact with each other. It was a tool, a way to facilitate communication, a way to stay in touch, a way to share, a way to joke.
And, unfortunately, also a way to augment, magnify and sustain some of the worst cases of bullying that I have had the misfortune to bear witness to.
In a week where many commentators jumped on the results of a study as to the effect of social media being “tiny” in regards to life satisfaction of adolescents, and used it as absolute proof that the concern over social media is nothing but overreaction, it got me to thinking about a number of incidents I would pretty much rather forget.
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Violent assaults uploaded, shared and discussed as entertainment. Anonymous messaging of threats and abuse designed to terrorise already vulnerable children. Sustained campaigns of shaming targeted at pupils with SEND. I could go on, but I don’t really want to.
Yes, of course bullying existed before the advent of social media and has always been an abhorrent part of school culture. And yes, social media is and of itself not overtly good or evil, it is how it used that makes it so.
But I think it would be naive to forget that what it does offer is a series of sophisticated tools that enable those who have the mind to systematically threaten, intimidate, hurt, ridicule and cause distress, to do it more easily, and with a far greater reach. In many cases, social media represents a digital fist that is able to squeeze a target wherever they are without respite or shelter both physically and/or emotionally.
Social media: Don't ignore the damage
Technology is my job. I see the fantastic things that it can do as well as the horrible. But it’s the horrible that stays with you. Mental breakdowns, anguished families and suicide attempts, all these brought about because somebody decides to do harm and uses the digital world to be more effective in that attempt.
We can teach children and young people about staying safe online, we can teach them how to be better people and not partake in the attempted destruction of their peers (and a lot of the time, even their friends). We can educate against the darkness as we so often do. But that doesn’t mean that we should disregard the tools that are being used. We are now in a world where social media permeates our lives and that perhaps is even more the case with young people. But to ignore the weapons that are employed in carrying out harm to others is to ignore ways in which we can minimise that harm.
I understand that it’s people who do the bullying. But social media helps – and we have to accept this.
Tom Starkey is an education writer and consultant