Thought for the digital day

When asked about the nature of assemblies at The Perse, I tell enquirers that we aim to create the school equivalent of Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”.  We explore a range of moral and ethical issues drawing upon religious teaching as appropriate.  We try to provide pupils with a framework by which they can live kind, considerate and rewarding lives whilst also encouraging them to consider the spiritual dimension of life.

Last Friday’s Thought for the Day by the chief Rabbi Lord Sacks put the current concerns about the misuse of social media into a historical and religious context.

Ever since the dawn of human language words have been used with the intent to harm.  It is a sad fact that first in speech and then in writing people have sought to alienate, hurt, threaten, demean and bully others.  Over the years improvements in technology, first with printing, then radio and television, and now digital media have greatly increased the speed and ease with which words can be used as weapons. These days those abused can be humiliated on a horrific scale around the clock at the click of a button.

Children today have access to technologies that can vastly exceed their capacity to manage the social interactions that are enabled as a result. Parents would guide them, but often their own digital knowledge lags way behind, limiting their awareness of what may be happening and their ability to tackle it.  It is a recipe for unhappiness and in extreme cases desperate tragedy, as we have recently seen.

Part of the answer lies with the social media sites, which need to be designed in ways that increase accountability for comments and reduce capacity for hurt.  Anonymous sites must be replaced with those where users are registered and their identity verifiable.  Trolls should be reported, and social media providers must be robust in identifying and acting on abusive comments, referring cases to the authorities where appropriate.

Technological fixes will yield some benefits but they can only do so much. While the providers play catch-up, schools and parents must redouble their efforts to promote responsible communication and remind children of the potential consequences of their actions.  Just because the technology permits it does not mean it is acceptable.

While the kind of abuse that has recently hit the headlines is at the extreme end of the scale, otherwise good children can fall foul of the temptation and opportunity that social media provides and fall into the trap of saying and doing things they later regret. We must work with young people to draw up a social media etiquette, but they also need to see influential celebrities modelling good online behaviour.

“Do as you would be done by” is an old message, but it has never been a more relevant one.  Children who say hurtful things to other pupils can find themselves on the receiving end of nasty retaliatory comments, and situations can quickly escalate with others joining in and taking sides. Learning how to walk away from tit for tat exchanges without attempting to have the last word, hold your tongue and keep your calm are valuable life lessons for the digital day.

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