“You look like a sex offender.”
“You 12 Year Old Faggot.”
“You should drink bleach and kill yourself.”
“I hope you get cancer.”
These are some of the comments left on a teenager’s YouTube channel after posting a series of short clips. As an adult, let alone a teacher, I was shocked to find comments like these in abundance. These comments were sent by other teenagers specifically to criticise the content of a channel. Having looked at other social media, the trend is very similar, particularly on Instagram.
I don’t want to get into a debate about how we teach internet safety to our kids. In my opinion, its a no-brainer that we should be teaching kids to be more intelligent and “streetwise” when it comes to the internet. However, to me, comments like these do not simply originate from a lack of understanding of how to use social media, but grow out of a total lack of compassion for other peoples’ feelings. Worryingly, as a teacher, it seems I am seeing more examples of this complete lack of understanding of how the actions of our students impact on their wider world.
Before I start suggesting that things are worse than they have ever been, I’d first like to reflect on my own years as a teenager. At times, teenagers can be cruel. Arguably, many lack the empathy we would expect from them as adults. It is easy as a teenager to get drawn into unpleasant behaviour due to many factors – peer pressure being a big one. But I would argue that the anonymity afforded by social media has allowed the very worse elements of teenage behaviour to take route, which is more reason why schools and individual teachers need to take more responsibility in supporting their students to make the right choices, maybe to the point of formalising this in the classroom.
Homophobia has been a recent case in point. In many schools, low-level homophobic comments have largely gone under the radar. “Oh, that’s gay!” says one teenager to another when referring to something they dislike. I continue to hear about comments like these unchallenged by teachers in charge of a classroom. On the upside, I have also worked with an amazing colleague who brought this issue to the forefront of her school, becoming a leading member of the Stonewall campaign to raise awareness of the use of this language in schools. The results were outstanding as students began to really understand the impact of their actions. More of this needs to happen.
But as teachers we are facing a battle. How do we teach compassion to our kids when the world around us is becoming increasingly hostile? A case in point was an article in the Guardian today about the wearing of the “Burkini”. I was shocked and dismayed that a supposed democratic, enlightened nation could enact and enforce such prejudicial laws for little purpose other than it “may offend people” on religious grounds, and was not in keeping with a “secular” society. I wonder how many Catholic Nuns were asked to de-frock in Paris today as a result of their religious expression?
After the Brexit vote, race hate crimes in the UK rose by 57% according to some research. Yet in the midst of all this intolerance from our societies, we expect our students to be tolerant, open-minded, non-prejudicial? We are fighting a losing battle!
My point here is that in the climate of intolerance, injustice and prejudice, maybe we need to be clearer to our students on ways in which to avoid this. Maybe we need to specifically teach the values which education SHOULD be about – compassion, understanding, open-mindedness. I know teachers that do this already – they are amazing. Their kids listen to them and learn a great deal about life from them too (and they know who they are!!) But I also know many teachers who avoid tackling these issues head on. That is why I would suggest that there needs to be a more formal approach to teaching these values in school.
At the moment, our societies have a great deal of room for improvement. But if we want to start making those improvements, maybe we need to start with education and the values that this should bring to our young people and start that process in our classrooms.