The Teenager and the Internet

The title of my blog this week might suggest notions of fairytale or fable, much like ‘The Princess and the Pea’, or ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. Not entirely inappropriate as it happens, although this is more of a cautionary tale than a fluffy bedtime story. 

There is no question that the internet is a fabulous tool available to us all, and I cannot imagine a world without it now. Even as I write this, I am connected to the Cloud via Google and, rather embarrassingly, I just used a search engine to find appropriate fairytale titles as it has been a while since I had bedtime stories myself! So, we can probably all agree that modern life is fairly dependent on the internet and, on the whole, has made our lives more efficient, and significantly easier. However, as with all powerful tools, a certain amount of caution must be advised when using, and certainly for younger users, there are a myriad of challenges to overcome along the way.

In my role as part of the pastoral team, I am regularly sent links to things online which warn of the dangers of the internet for teenagers and invariably, they lead to worrying stories of image or video sharing, usually explicit and often with a sinister undertone of predatory behaviour. Much of the conversation around online ‘peril’ focuses on images, video and social media, and they are certainly issues to be aware of. 

On Monday this week, we welcomed Tanya Goodin into school to address our Year 9 and 10 students and to discuss these matters further with our parents. The talk was fascinating and a really poignant reminder of the side effects of too much screen use. She discussed, at length, the negative impacts of social media on mental health, particularly for teenage girls. She alluded to the research conducted by the GDST in 2017, where it was found that over 60% of students said they wished social media had never been invented, and yet they feel compelled to use it on a daily basis for fear of missing out. 

Social media might well be the biggest concern for many parents out there. Who is your child conversing with and what are they conversing about? Are they receiving unsolicited images or unkind messages? Or perhaps, are they the ones sending the messages? Either way, the implications for all concerned in these exchanges are serious ones. For the sender, the message or image or video is now out there and out of their control. The potential for resharing, grabbing a screenshot or retrieving deleted data is unlimited. Even for messaging sites that claim their content is automatically deleted after a set time period. Essentially, once that send or upload button has been pressed, there is no going back. The permanence of their actions in sending or uploading content is something that young children and teenagers forget time and time again. Equally alarmingly for the receiver of messages, not only may they be potentially harmful to them as an individual, but they may suddenly be at risk of owning inappropriate or illegal content, regardless of whether they asked for it or not. 

More recently though, another challenge has become more prevalent for the teenage target audience. Online fan fiction and literature, where anyone can write and upload content to blog sites, online discussion groups and, to name just a few, are becoming areas of the internet that conceal multiple dangers. Much of this is harmless and fairly innocent, providing a good opportunity for budding literaries and authors alike. However, there are multiple examples of where the content of these sites is not age appropriate and in some more concerning examples, it is wildly unsuitable in that it describes illegal and profoundly harmful practices, to put it euphemistically. These range from sexually explicit to self-harm and suicide, everything in between, and to be frank, a combination of the two in some instances. 

So what are our children and teens reading at bedtime? Is it appropriate or is it potentially harmful? What are they downloading, and what are they uploading? These are questions we need to be asking and discussions that we need to be opening up at home. These concepts are introduced to all our students through the PSHE programme at the High School and they are revisited across each year group. However, it is an easy thing to forget when you think you are anonymous. The key thing to remember here is that when you are online, you are never really anonymous.

The internet and all its applications is a very powerful tool and this week’s slightly negative approach is more of a cautionary message than a message of total despair. However, I do think that further conversations around managing online activity will be invaluable for our students as individuals and as a community. In conversation with someone last week, the phrase, “Oh they just need to get on with it and be mature in their approach to social media”, was used. In one sense, yes they do, but would you hand your teenager the keys to your car and tell them to work it out and just be sensible? Guidance is necessary in many things and I believe that navigating social media is more difficult than people imagine it to be. 

Ongoing work in school on this subject area will continue across all year groups, but please do open up a dialogue with us if you are at all concerned about how best to support your daughter in an online world. We will continue to share useful information about online safety, but to get us started, I have included a here sheet on what parents need to know about group chats online. I hope it helps!

Miss Rebecca Kneen
Assistant Head – Pastoral