'Will fear of social media result in schools throwing the internet baby out with the bathwater?'

Regulating pupil internet use shouldn't only be about rationing wifi – we need to ask how they are using it, writes a celebrated educationalist

Kevin Stannard

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Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, has warned that children are overusing social media and bingeing on the internet. She recommends that parents play a role in regulating digital activity.

Her intervention follows the finding that children aged 5-15 spend 15 hours a week online (the internet overtook TV as the top media pastime last year). It reflects concerns about online safety and the techniques used to encourage greater digital dependency – in particular, click-bait and Snapchat streaking.

She compares social media to sweeties, online time to junk food and argues that parents should be as attentive to internet use as they are to ensuring their children get a balanced diet.

We should be careful to avoid conflating categories.

The analogy with TV viewing is a misleading one. There is no essential difference between watching a scheduled programme on TV and streaming it through a digital device. These distinctions are fast disappearing. In addition, the internet is more than social media.

Distinctions to make

In an essay competition last term, aimed at Year 12 pupils in the Girls’ Day School Trust, one question asked whether they would be able to cope without a digital device for a month. The responses were enlightening and included the occasional indignant riposte, making clear that this is exactly the kind of patronising question asked by out-of-touch adults.

Students drew the distinction between the internet in general and social media. On the latter, they appear to be very aware of the dangers. Many agree that they over-use social media, devoting endless hours to avoiding missing out. Self-image is clearly an issue. Several essayists observed that, after a session on social media, they rarely find themselves in a better state of mind.

However, social media and online games do not the internet make. Many students feel that their learning is enriched by easy access to information and expertise. Of course, not all the information is true, but that takes us into the realm of babies and bathwater.

Regulation of online time must include sensitivity to how the internet is being used. Anne Longfield recognises this in her observation that attending to pupil internet use isn’t simply a matter of rationing wifi. We need to encourage young people to use the internet to learn new skills, interact positively and be creative. Robert Hannigan, ex-head of GCHQ, has urged that time spent online might develop the cyber-skills we need to save the country. The great disappointment of Web 2.0 has been its failure to deliver on the promise to move most people’s internet activity from consumption to creation.

There are legitimate concerns around over-dependence on the internet, not least the fallacy of connectivism. Up to a point, it’s OK if I don’t know something as long as I know where to find it. Renaissance Man is dead, but a lot of learning involves building on and making connections between digested learning. Cognitive capital is a precious commodity.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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Kevin Stannard

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