'The only people who can protect children from invidious digital technology are us, the adults'

Teachers need to advise parents on setting ground rules when it comes to access to digital technology, writes one headteacher. We need to set an example, too

Hilary French

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We are a social media nation. We have embraced new technologies more quickly than most continental European countries and our teenagers are the most unhappy. Research is now showing that this is no coincidence – and that even many children say that they would be happier if social media didn’t exist. 

Schools and educators are at the frontline in this particular battle and parents are increasingly looking to us for help and advice. School is one of life’s constants. None of us has faced these challenges before, they are unprecedented, but as teachers we know children and are experts in educating them. We need to channel our well-honed skills, training and knowledge into the social media and internet arena and arm ourselves in the fight.

One of the key weapons is encouraging children to understand and recognise for themselves the difference between real and online worlds and getting them to assess where and what makes them happy. Most of all, it is about encouraging them to approach the online world with caution.

Schools need to start a dialogue with pupils and their families – and the first message is, consider the consequences of allowing your child(ren) unfettered social media and internet access.

Reign in technology

Another challenge for many parents is to address whether they know how much time their child is spending online and what they are watching – let alone who they are talking to.

And perhaps the biggest challenge: we all need to reign it back in.

For anyone who still needs convincing of the need for constraints on social media usage: a survey of 5,000 school students in England by Digital Awareness UK, on behalf of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) showed that 57 per cent had received abusive comments online, 56 per cent admitted to being on the edge of addiction and 52 per cent that social media makes them feel less confident about how they look.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) research also showed a direct correlation between unhappiness and time spent online, with the UK one of the unhappiest nations with high levels of stress and anxiety among 15-year-olds.

How to help

Protecting our children in an ever-changing world is our job and shapes a lot of the work we do at Newcastle High, such as running active engagement and wellbeing campaigns. As part of the Girls' Day School Trust, we are part of the Positive Schools programme. This aims to adopt the approach taken by airlines of applying your own oxygen mask before helping others by training teachers and, through them, pupils to be more emotionally literate, manage pressure and adapt better to change. Some 12 teachers from Newcastle High have taken part and been trained as part of the first pilot project and the results are starting to feed into the classroom and into teaching methods.

By equipping teachers with the tools to work on their own personal wellbeing we are equipping them with the skills and first-hand knowledge to be able to pass on these much needed skills to the children. These programmes are designed to improve the health and wellbeing of our girls and feed in to every aspect of daily life at Newcastle High. We know how crucial this is, not just for academic, but for lifelong, success.

One beacon of hope in all the statistical gloom is that the happiest and highest achievers in any country have parents who spend time talking to them. The OECD found that the simple act of talking, showing an interest and listening to children still made the biggest difference to their feelings of belonging and satisfaction with life.

The next step for us then is to get teenagers out of their bedrooms, off their phones and talking at both school and home.   

Links and lifelines 

At school, we encourage students to talk to each other and to teachers and to recognise that they belong to and are part of a wider school community. We make lessons as interactive as possible and encourage information gathering and research wider than searches on Google and Wikipedia. One extremely useful programme is our mentoring and buddy scheme where sixth formers are paired with Year 7 students starting life in senior school. These links offer a real lifeline to young people especially when they encounter problems, or emotional and friendship wobbles. For our older pupils, we encourage an active dialogue with past pupils through our alumnae association and events and with the wider school community of business and industry contacts who work closely with the school and its pupils.

Our children’s experience of mobile technology and the technological capabilities of the devices we provide for them are clearly throwing up issues and challenges for which we are all ill-prepared.

Trying to re-establish a technological balance can seem draconian, but it is crucial that we try. We need to ensure that children are building real, robust and lasting friendships and relationships that can withstand social media, not to see it as a crutch or be created by it.

Phone plans

In school, we work with parents to provide guidance at home and encourage them to introduce management plans for mobile phone use in their homes, for themselves as well as their children.

One golden rule: no phones at the table at any family meal time.

An unpopular recommendation – but one that works wonders for sleep patterns and reduces internet overuse – is a nightly Wi-Fi curfew and the removal of phones from bedrooms overnight. We encourage parents to invest in an alarm clock for their children, so they don’t rely on phones by their beds.

Another suggestion is encouraging parents to watch what their children watch – with them. Many young people rarely watch TV in the family room or with someone else present, instead consuming their entertainment largely online via Netflix or YouTube and often in the solitary confines of their bedrooms. 

Protecting young people from the dangers of what can seem like a harmless mobile phone boils down to one thing – protecting young, impressionable, immature minds from themselves. The only people who can do that are the adults in their lives.

Hilary French is headmistress of Newcastle High School for Girls, Newcastle

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Hilary French

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