The Head, Bart Wielenga

Social Media: Calm it down or wind it up?

Parental anxiety about new media is not novel. It was not long ago that glossy magazines were considered to be the driving force in the rising angst about body image in young people. Before that, television was considered to be a pernicious influence that undermined family values and a healthy upbringing. My point isn’t that there was (or is) no threat in printed media or television, but clearly history is bound to repeat itself and the present threat will be surpassed by a yet greater scourge. Perhaps each generation instinctively leans towards the challenges of something new whereas the younger generation automatically recognises the opportunities they present.

On Wednesday there were two articles in The Times about social media. One suggested that unhappiness amongst girls was the direct result of social media. The other, by Alice Thomson, encouraged parents to ‘calm down about social media’. The Editor was clearly doing a good job of giving a balanced perspective on the topic – or perhaps The Times, like many other publications, isn’t quite sure and hence delivered a mixed message that can confuse adults and bemuse young people!

Mind you, it is a useful debate and the perspectives on the potential good and the potential harm of devices and social media are both valid.

Personally I am an optimist about devices and social media although I confess to not being an expert in gadgetry and I have only a novice’s curiosity about social media. In my day to day dealings with young people at school I see a genuine desire to get things right and to behave reasonably and responsibly with phones and social media. This is in no way to suggest that pupils at Blundell’s are immune to overuse or abuse of gadgets but in my experience of educating teenagers, it didn’t require social media for pupils to be unkind to each other. In fact, social media and phones are as much an opportunity for kindness and mutual support as they are for bullying and anxiety.

At school we take the line that pupils can carry their phones with them during the day. Unlike other schools where phones are banned, we have made a deliberate decision to empower pupils to make good choices. Pupils know that if they get it wrong, sanctions will be enforced but we take a simple view on the matter: whether an interaction is on-line or off-line the same values and principles apply, the rules are the same. Perhaps surprisingly to those who see no good in these electronic devices and who feel that young people are slaves to them, you will not see many phones out on display between lessons or when pupils move around campus. I think that the majority of pupils respect the relatively liberal stance we have taken and want to work with us to achieve the best outcomes for them.

It is clearly important that we are well informed of the dangers that phones and social media can pose but the crux of Alice Thomson’s article is this: “it is working out how to use devices for gain not pain and how to set boundaries for users and providers.” The danger exists. There are consequences to misuse and abuse. There are also heaps of opportunities for positive outcomes and clear boundaries are key. Our message will continue to be that we will work with our pupils to ensure more gain and less pain.

It is, after all, not about the gadget, it’s about the values of the person using the gadget.