Editorial - Let's not be blind to the value of networking sites

11th September 2009 at 01:00
Those who weigh the risks of online forums should also reflect on their positive side

Beware social networking sites: they, and the pupils who use them, could leave your classroom career in ruins. Watch out for the malevolent influence they can have on children's behaviour, and the way school results tumble as use of these websites increases. They have the potential to undermine the world and, more importantly, your professional progression.

Or not. The fear-mongering in the media surrounding the widespread take-up of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and others has been staggering. This is most prevalent among those who do not truly understand social media, or perhaps those who react badly to change in all its forms. Fax machine, anyone? Oh for the days of an honest telegram.

The fact is, these sites are not revolutionary. They do not leave pupils as computer-obsessed sociopaths shaking at the sight of a real living human being. Only a tiny minority will lock themselves in their rooms year after year - and those hermits who do would probably have done so anyway.

To almost all children, these networks are just another communication channel, another way to organise friends, file contacts, store photos and sort diary dates. Just another way - along with email, texts, phones - of staying in the loop.

The music industry, for example, has become increasingly aware that sites such as MySpace are leading to a newly reinvigorated gigging scene, from one-man acts in the back rooms of pubs to huge stadium rock gigs. This means more people going out, making friends and interacting face-to-face.

There is no doubt that Professor Ken Reid, who chairs the Assembly government's National Behaviour and Attendance Review (pages 1 and 46), is right to push for a debate about what these networking sites will mean for schools. But anyone entering this discussion would be well advised not to begin from a starting point of fear.

It is, of course, reasonable to point out that there are practical problems to overcome for school staff. Professor Reid rightly highlights that there are issues surrounding, say, bullying that will be affected by the rise of these forums. So by all means teach children about them - about the dangers and the advantages.

Indeed, teachers should be more than careful in their own use of these sites. It would be a naive or foolhardy teacher who agreed to a Facebook friend request from a pupil, for example.

And staff - of all ages - should also be prepared to have a debate about how they use sites as teaching aids. The possibilities are endless. It seems improbable that classrooms of the future will not integrate them. Indeed, some are already doing so: just look at the widespread use of online learning platforms across the UK.

But fear would be misplaced. Parents and teachers should not be overly anxious about the majority of teens who are regularly logging on to these networking sites; indeed, those not doing so should be a greater cause for concern.

Ed Dorrell, News editor, TES E: ed.dorrell@tes.co.uk.

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