Do you or don’t you?
The nation, it seems, is divided into ardent social networkers and those who wouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole. It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I fall into the latter category, so I admit I'm slightly biased.
While not necessarily subscribing to the view that Facebook is the fifth horseman of the apocalypse and we’re all going to hell in a handcart designed by American college kids, I have to admit it makes me distinctly uneasy.
And I’m not alone – this week’s Telegraph carries a piece by headmaster John Newton outlining his concerns about the effects of Facebook on the young: ‘Children believe that the imprimatur of the internet gives a statement an authority and a value that are unquestioned’.
I dare say that, when William Caxton and Johannes Gutenberg demonstrated their cutting edge technology, there were dark mutterings about it giving equal validity to sacred and profane content – “Nothing good will ever come of this printing – you mark my words!” – but nevertheless the printed word inexorably acquired precedence over handwriting.
Now we are seeing the same phenomenon at work, as children attach more significance to what they read on the internet than to what they are told in class. They are bombarded with so much information – and misinformation – that they no longer recognize their own limitations.
The authority of teachers and respect for their superior knowledge have been undermined to the extent that a twelve-year-old, looking at the word ‘whom’ on the board, can point out with utter conviction and a distinctly triumphal air: “You’ve made a mistake – there’s no such word as ‘womm’.”
He knows there’s no such word – he’s never seen it before, ergo it does not exist. As Newton puts it,
‘By unleashing a monster which encourages young people to learn from each other armed by their inevitably limited perspective...we will raise a generation who do not love learning but simply see the screen as a source of opinion – any opinion – or nuggets of information, poorly digested, that will suit their point of view.’
He also highlights the problems of teachers using facebook to communicate with their pupils – a favoured strategy among some progressives: ‘An instruction to do the questions on page 17 sitting next to a photo of a drunken moment in Ibiza can have dire consequences’.
Personally, I feel there’s a trade-off here – teachers need the respect of their pupils and to keep their home life entirely out of the school domain and that means exercising extreme caution over Facebook and its ilk. Any teacher who posts personal details on the internet where pupils – and parents – can see them is taking a grave risk.
Despite its many evils – the proliferation of Facebook-linked divorces, the risk of meeting unsavoury characters online, the potential for lynch mobs and the devastation of ruined reputations or careers – social networking is here to stay and schools will have to take a stand.
The first step should be to remove all implicit endorsements in schools – unbelievably, there are school websites containing direct links to Facebook and similar sites. There is much to be said, too, for a ban on internet-enabled mobile phones in schools.
And, above all, schools need to get across the message that anything published on the internet is immediately beyond your control. The best advice I’ve heard is ‘Don't put anything online today unless you’d be happy to see it on the side of a bus tomorrow’.
It’s a rule I try to follow – although tomorrow, at least, it would have to be a bloody big bus.