Social Media in Schools: Banning Cars Doesn’t Work

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One of today’s big news story in Australia has been the suspension of 5 schoolgirls from Mitcham High School, Adelaide, who uploaded a video, in response to Kony 2012, offering sexual favours for money, to help the campaign. The video was promptly taken down, Prime Minster Julia Gillard described the girls as ‘very silly’, but bringing the police in to investigate the incident has again highlighted the question of  social media in schools.

I’ve no doubt the girls were shocked to see themselves in the public eye in this way, I’m sure they’re getting a severe ear-bashing from their parents, and no doubt schools will be sent letters from the education department in South Australia, underlining the need to be vigilant and reminding schools of their duty of care to protect children.

As it happens, I was in Adelaide last week and, tried to demonstrate the schools music self-publishing website NUMU, to teachers present. Having entered the URL, I was greeted with a message saying the website was blocked by the South Australian Government. Now, this is a safe, and much used, site. Schools find it a great motivator, as young people upload their music, blog, comment on others work, and generally share their passion for music, and peer learning. Most of the teachers present gave a world-weary shrug, explaining that most social media sites (including YouTube and Facebook) are blocked by the education department. South Australia is by no means unique here – I’d estimate that less than 20% of schools in countries like the UK, Australia and the US allow their students to access social media. I’d further estimate that about, oh, 100% of those same students access social media at home.

So, there are some interesting parallels between the KONY campaign, and this, fairly minor, Mitcham response to it: both were videos which generated  a great deal of interest, followed by accusations of naivety and a lack of common sense; both suffered from the bigger message being obscured by the media’s hypocritical sexual prurience. Kony 2012 are about to release a follow-up video to their initial viral sensation. The word is that it will be a correction of the  original’s lack of African voices, and a defence of Invisible Children’s use of funds, and their motives. But it has undoubtedly been affected by the sad, and all-too-public, breakdown of its director, Jason Russell caught naked in a street in San Diego. Similarly, the Adelaide schoolgirls were, I believe, trying to support Kony’s aims in raising awareness of child sexual abuse by Kony’s followers. They just did it in a cack-handed way, which has given rise to lots of people trying – unsuccessfully, thank God – to view their apparent titillations.

I really hope that the Kony follow-up reaches millions of eyeballs, not least because, as an educator, I believe it has tapped into the powerful ethical passions of kids around the world. And so what if the video was short on facts yet big on emotion? I seem to remember Bob Geldof receiving the same criticism when he sought to make politicians do something as a result of Live Aid. Students are now doing their own research, and making their own minds up, as a result of the Kony video.Much of that research happens at home, because schools are paranoid about what falsehoods (or worse) they may come across on the internet, but they’re doing it, and learning as a result.

Likewise, today’s incident will probably result in calls for even bigger clampdowns on school internet restrictions, on the grounds that kids need to be protected from themselves. My own view is that, ironically, what happened today was partly as a direct result of educators trying to ban cars, instead of helping kids learn how to cross the road. Social media, like the automobile, is not going to go away, so let’s find ways to enable kids to understand the benefits, and risks, of using it. At its best, it can be a tremendous, liberating, force for good. At its worst, it enables bullies to do terrible things remotely – without thinking too much about the consequences.

Pretending it doesn’t exist between school hours, isn’t just abdicating an educational responsibility (to foster digital literacy and critical thinking), it’s also reinforcing the growing sense in young people that what goes on in school is sectioned off from the real world, rather than a part of it.

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