The European Parliament's plans that effectively banned young people from social media have been cancelled and I am sure that several teachers will be disappointed.
Since beginning my PGCE in September several fellow trainees and guest speakers have called for students to be barred from using site likes Facebook and Twitter. Not only have they proposed school-time bans but at home as well. It looked like their wish was coming true when earlier this week the EU considered amending data protection laws so that the age of consent for websites to use personal data would be raised from 13 to 16.
The new legislation from Brussels centred around data protection, but educators' arguments against students using social media are plentiful and compelling; among others, social media distracts students from learning, social media leads to bullying and social media is rife with dangerous content, ideas and people. But haven't we heard these arguments before? TV, books, rap music, video games and rock'n'roll have all been criticised for poisoning the minds of the next generation and leading to the inevitable failure of society. Moral panic seems to follow the development of every new form of media.
I am not suggesting that we should allow un-bridled access for all when new forms of media emerge. However, we need to consider how we demonise and ban things with knee-jerk reflexes, when a more considered approach may be appropriate. It is not that new media formats are inherently at fault, it is the users and consumers of the media that mistreat it and malign its potential.
When I was on the other side of the teacher's desk, as a student, I can remember the excitement that the appearance of the TV trolley provoked in a classroom. As a medium of communication TV can be inappropriate for children, but teachers created a safe environment where it could be used as an educational tool.
Similarly, it would be daft to try and use violent games like Grand Theft Auto to teach children anything, but the creative video-game Minecraft is already being used in school to aid learning. The same is also true with YouTube, I regularly show educational clips in my classroom (hopefully to positive effect), but I watch through all the videos beforehand carefully and never scroll down to the comments so that nothing inappropriate is seen by the students.
Some readers of this piece may recall the heyday of MSN messenger, when you would rush to the computer after school to ask classmates 'wuu2' (what are you up to?) only to reply 'nm u?' (not much you?) because we were doing exactly the same thing. The conversation afterwards was usually asinine and puerile, but every now and again it progressed onto discussing homework (before saying 'gtg dinner'). Even now my PGCE course-mates throw questions onto the Facebook group: 'how do I make teaching heat-loss interesting?', with several insightful comments following and some use WhatsApp groups for discussing, among other things, education.
When we teach young children to read, parents or teachers provide them with their first book and sit with them to help them develop their mastery of the medium. When they get more proficient we might suggest further reading material and then progress them into the relative freedom in the 'kids' section and then 'young adult' section of the library.
I realize that showing YouTube clips in class and selecting reading material for students is more readily controlled than monitoring what children can access online and I provide no ultimate solutions here. Instead I only suggest that we scaffold children's first forays into social media better.
The idiom 'better the devil you know' might best describe my thoughts on the topic. Social media is how future generations will communicate and there is no denying that it will bring problems; social networks may be the medium through which friends fall out, or why students have failed to do their homework, but students will always fall out or find reasons not do their work. Let us prepare our children to deal with problems that arise with using social media instead of pretending they will be fine at 16. We should be training students to become independent, responsible and discerning consumers of new, and sometimes frightening, forms of communication, instead of trying to impose arbitrary blanket bans which can be easily circumvented anyway.