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Should social media netiquette be taught in schools?

This is my column that appeared in the Courier Mail on Wednesday, 20 July 2011:

An “urgent” proposal by parents and cyberbullying experts to have social media such as FaceBook and Twitter taught in the classroom is attracting mixed reactions.

Director of social media intelligence firm, SR7, Thomas Tudehope believes a social media “module” should be introduced into the national curriculum.

Does including classes that focus on netiquette in an already overcrowded curriculum provide a solution to the growing problem of cyberbullying and texting?

Or is this a case, yet again, of what should fall under the broad banner of “parenting” being outsourced to teachers?

Sex, religion and other subjects once understood as the province of families are also being handed over to schools for delivery.

What becomes too hard for ‘time poor’ and/or inept parents to handle, or arouses moral panic, is tossed to teachers.

We already complain that young people don’t know how to spell, that grammar has gone the way of vinyl records and that manners are something they have on Downtown Abbey.

But, instead of investing in core subjects that broaden and enrich the mind, we treat schools as one-stop-shops for basic life-skills.

When it comes to sex, religious and now social media education, beyond what can be taught as ‘fact’ (reproduction, biology, the number of religions in the world and where they originate, the types of social media and how they function), there’s a vast grey area where ideas about right and wrong are not only subjective but rely upon an agreed moral framework to operate.

Schools can inform young people about the pragmatics of sex, but the emotional and psychological fall-out – how someone feels, how they’re viewed, the intimacy, the potential for harm, confusion and pleasure, is the parents’ responsibility.

Often these things are either role-modelled by important adults in children’s lives and/or they’re discussed as a rite-of-passage. Whether we like it or not, peers may even fulfill that role.

Sex education is a morally ambiguous area that conflates personal history, religion, culture and gender.

Funnily enough, social media is also one of those. Schools can teach their students about its purpose, accessibility and how to use it. They can and do warn about the dangers of cyberbullying, sexting and all the other problematic behaviours that this type of technology provokes and which sets off community alarm bells.

But, just like sex education, it doesn’t matter how many classes are offered, they can’t instill in students an awareness of how individual behaviour and words impact upon others. Not alone. Nor can an educator be expected to explain or teach about kindness, manners, honour, respect, trust and putting others before yourself.

They can only hope to reinforce what’s already there.

Suggesting that these type of lessons, which become mired in competing value systems – the individual, family and community – be delivered in exclusive lessons, might be great for headlines, and for passing the buck, but they don’t work.

This is before we consider that many schools ban social media anyway. Young people access it through their mobile technology – that which their parents have purchased for them and which they take to school in spite of the rules.

But how long are we going to fall back on the notion that young people don’t understand the long-term effects of their online behaviour? Especially when there are so many real world examples – positive and negative – out there. There’s only so many times a person can be warned, regardless of age, before they have to own their actions and the consequences.

Bullies aren’t confined to cyberspace. They exist in the real world of children and adults. Social media reflects their presence, it doesn’t create them.

Sadly, the inclination to torment and vilify was there before the internet gave it an outlet.

Once again, social media is being held accountable for what is a human failing.

In demonizing social media and its users, we fail to recognise those who deploy it in responsible, polite and meaningful ways – beyond the classroom as well.

Good values, manners and respect cannot be learned at school alone. They can be reinforced in that environment, but teachers are not surrogate parents and the sooner we allow them to get on with their primary job, not ours, and support each other, the better off we’ll all be.


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