The educational, social and developmental benefits of digital technology are clear - especially in the midst of a global pandemic, where our devices have become a vital window to the outside world.
Despite this, we can’t ignore the risks that come with internet access, social media accounts and online communication.
Social media posts are giving our children a skewed view of reality. They live in an online world where they are constantly pressured into achieving as many likes as possible, and their friends are only ever having the time of their lives.
It comes as no surprise that being constantly exposed to a digitally enhanced reality can take a serious toll on children’s mental health.
Bullying is another worrying side effect of social media and messaging platforms. These effects are increasingly occurring outside of school hours and beyond the gates, meaning that the burden to police screen time might fall on the often time-poor parent, who can be entirely unaware of how their children are being harmed online, or what harm their child may be doing to others.
It’s a school’s duty to educate their pupils on the risks associated with digital technology, which includes ensuring that they have the best chance of being protected both at school and at home. During a pandemic, the boundaries between home and school are blurred, meaning getting each right is more vital than ever before.
Some families make the smart choice to only allow online computer use in a visible space or location within the home. Having a laptop or computer in a kitchen or family area makes it a more sociable and communicable part of everyday household interactions. Parents here have found that their children are far less likely to get into trouble if they’re on a screen around the rest of their family, as opposed to secretively accessing unknown sites alone in their rooms.
What does the research say?
We don’t need research to know that the amount of time that students are spending in front of screens has increased in the past decade. Students now have access to personal computers, mobile phones and tablets, all of which help them learn, connect and stay entertained.
What research has highlighted, however, is a turning point that occurred when more than half of adolescents owned a mobile phone for the first time. Psychologists saw a significant spike in mental health issues among school-aged kids, as ‘kids with devices’ moved from a rarity to an everyday occurrence.
According to Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, one in five children have experienced some form of cyberbullying (Karp, 2018). Increased interconnectedness in the online world has meant that schoolyard comments and bullying behaviours no longer stop when the 3:15pm bell rings. The bullying now takes place online, after hours and often in their bedrooms, away from parents’ eyes.
Cyberbullying, unlike traditional bullying, is far more invasive and complex. It can include abusive text messages, humiliation, exclusion, imitation, and nasty gossip. There is no doubt that bullying of this nature has an impact on the mental health of young people.
What can schools do about it?
Our own college continues to have a zero-tolerance in this space with students who engage in bullying; they face a lengthy suspension, enrolment contract or permanent exclusion.
We would advise any school to make these four rules incredibly clear to their pupils when dealing with trolls and online bullying. Firstly, take a screenshot of the post. Second, delete the offensive post. Do not engage with the troll, and, finally, report the incident to their Head of House or primary teacher.
All schools should have some way of tracking students’ internet usage on their school computers in order to surface any concerning behaviour. At Waverley, we use a program called Cyberhound, which allows any and all concerning searches to be automatically reported to the Heads of House. We also have the ability to conduct a detailed IT audit of a pupil’s internet history if an alleged breach or concern is bought to our attention.
Keeping devices out of bedrooms and where parents can see them is a vital step for ensuring safety at home, and the school should make every effort to explain this to parents and students alike.
The education sector is in an incredibly unique time in history, where the boundaries between school and home are blurred, and digital technology has become an even more critical tool for both learning and social connection.
As educators, we have a responsibility to teach our students how to use this technology safely and responsibly in order to protect both their mental and physical health. We can’t be there to protect them every hour of the day, but we can teach them how to have a healthier relationship with the online world. In the midst of a global pandemic, that lesson is more important than ever before.
Patrick Brennan is the Deputy Principal – Staff and Student Wellbeing – at Waverley College, Sydney.Do you have an idea for a story?
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