Yesterday was Safer Internet Day, an excellent initiative, which for the last 14 years has mobilised thousands of schools and organisations across the country to do their part in educating children about online safety. For my part I worked with a colleague to run five intensive one hour workshops with over 400 year seven students in a large London secondary school.
However, as I talked to the pupils and their teachers, I detected that it wasn't just their safety they are concerned with. No, the focus has changed to online happiness - or lack of it.
Asking students yesterday about the earliest time they logged on that morning, most admitted to waking early for fear of missing out (FOMO). The adrenaline rush they receive from posts being "liked" can become addictive and sleep is the casualty. How strange that many seem to be suffocating under a technology which paradoxically was supposed to liberate, democratise and empower us. The confident thrive, but those with poor self-worth can struggle to survive.
Teaching children how to be safe is really important; there is a strong correlation between unsafe behaviour and a young person's well-being. The alarming news that almost a quarter of a million children in the UK are currently receiving help from NHS mental health services for problems such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, indicates that children are suffering from pressure (including exams) but also from neglect, which is perhaps the greatest safety issue. With a third of secondary schools reporting this week that they are having to cut back on their mental health and wellbeing services, is it time to stop and re-think the emphasis of our online awareness messages and our longer-term support for young people growing up online?
Of course it's not the technology per se to blame - who would naively blame a tool which has brought such wonder and benefit? Rather it is the behaviour played out along the digital corridors and behind age-restricted, yet open doors, where ever younger children are gaining an understanding of their self-worth and identity through Instagram and Snapchat. Sure, un-supervised minors engaging privately with older teens on these platforms can give children a chance to explore risks and become more resilient, but we must be careful not to over-exaggerate this, nor confuse it with the nurturing, love and time spent in developing children's cognitive and emotional learning which teachers and parents can do so well.
We need to shift our education and awareness programmes from what educationalists call deontological thinking (following rules and doing the right thing) to Virtue Ethics and Character Education. In part, this is reflected in focusing more on Digital Citizenship, something the Children's Commissioner is calling for in her recent report. But it is more than this.
In our sessions yesterday we talked to children about the difference between a compass and a Sat Nav. Sat Navs issue instructions and directions telling us where and how to travel by the rules. But rules on the internet are contradictory, hard to establish and uphold and can have unintended consequences. We've all heard our Sat Navs bark "recalculating" at us! Compasses on the other hand simply help us find our 'True North', enabling us to make decisions within the existing context and importantly, rely on our character strengths in order to find the right path.
Some say that character strengths such as honesty, kindness, bravery and gratitude are attributes innately possessed and therefore harder to teach and grow, certainly in the short-term. I am not so sure. Of course, some things like self-regulation and humility can be difficult to teach. However, given that many of these qualities are explored and even 'caught' through sport, social action, mentoring and in small group workshops, both schools and parents could be doing more to innovate and pioneer a new pedagogy which relates the power of character education to the online world. Some outstanding schools are already doing this. But in an online world where terms such as 'snitching' or 'banter' are used to distort and dilute the importance of honesty and kindness, we need to dig deeper. You can't switch this thinking in a day: It takes a term, a year, a life of learning, and a whole-school approach.
So why does character education for an online world matter?
Firstly, character strengths can be discovered. Assisting a 16 year old student to discover their strengths and then capturing evidence of these qualities in the online world is incredibly important. There may not be a GCSE in kindness, but the knowledge that you are kind can be a reward in itself and is therefore powerful. It's no coincidence that the leading character education programme in the USA is called KIPP - Knowledge is Power Programme. Don't tell a young person that being kind will just make them good; show him or her that being kind can make them successful, rich in relationships and in their future work life. Kindness also transforms relationships and reputation online; it helps protect the future you!
Secondly, experts at The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues at the University Of Birmingham argue that character is not simply a trait but a strength which can be taught and grown. I believe the Internet provides the perfect 'gymnasium' where character muscles can be strengthened, old habits challenged, new techniques taught. No-one says it is easy, but tell me an exercise regime which is.
Dr Tom Harrison, Director of Education at the Jubilee Centre says,
"Evidence that supports the case for new educational approaches that inspire young people to become good and wise users of the Internet are emerging. They prioritise the cultivation of key character virtues, such as integrity, compassion and help young people to develop the capacity to acquire online practical wisdom and take the compassionate, honest or courageous action, even when no one was watching."
Thirdly, character education is needed now more than ever. Far from simple 'nice' personal traits, good character education is becoming critical in our complex world where the biggest challenges are not to choose between a virtue or a vice, but to find the right balance between two competing virtues and situations where it seems almost impossible to be both honest and considerate at the same time. Take for example the scenario of what you should say to a friend online who asks you for your opinion about a piercing she is considering, but which to you looks ugly? The ancient Greeks called this character strength phronesis; the overall quality of knowing what to do when the demands of two or more virtues compete. It is here that good character education is supremely relevant as children face these dilemmas online every day.
So let's get behind Safer Internet Day and commit ourselves to helping children stay safe. But let's also find ways of embedding the principles of character education into digital citizenship (and other subjects), all year round. Helping children appreciate the value of the compass leads to young people ultimately being able to self-regulate, lead with compassion and live by their truth in a "fake news" world. That's such a valuable education outcome and something to celebrate.