Originally published 16 September, 2017
This article has appeared in the quarterly DITTO e-safety magazine which you can access through Alan Mackenzie’s page via my links page or by going to www.esafety-adviser.com
My last article talked about fake news, scare stories and critical thinking. This one is not so far from that in terms of the topic, however, I wanted to write something that feels more hopeful for you as teachers and parents.I took a number of small social media sabbaticals this year for a number of reasons. The main reason being for self-care. You see when you submerge yourself in something, such as a bath you expect to get wet. Well, so the same goes for social media and the incessant negative stories and topics that I research, means that I can become both overwhelmed or begin to view the world in a skewed manner if I don’t practice what I preach in terms of looking after myself. As a professional working with peoples stories of their traumas, negative life experiences and worries for much of my day, this can happen to me as a therapist in the real world, and so in turn researching, cybertrauma can also have this impact. I keep a very close eye on myself in this respect and know when to take some time out and regularly discuss this in supervision to makes sure I am not becoming vicariously traumatised. This is a (helpful) suggestion for you too. As I took these mini sabbaticals during late spring and summertime there were some awful tragedies occurring throughout the world and being shared on social media (no more so than at any other time I might add), however, I made a conscious decision to refrain from social media to see what happened for me as usual, this is one of the points when I research much more closely, it is after all my chosen topic of interest. In short, I found that I both managed the breaks and they were delightful. I am aware that this may cause some people to break into a cold sweat when thinking about taking time out from social media and this is not an article about the benefits of social media sabbaticals. What I did find out, what has interested me and is the remit of this article is that social media exacerbates the fear factor and this was apparent with my clients who brought their social media stories and scares into the therapy room for the entire time I was on my sabbaticals. So what I wanted to communicate is more about the psychology of fear, violence, crime and terrorism and how this is not actually as prominent as social media makes out (this is not rocket science here by the way and you should not be surprised by this statement). Firstly let me introduce two excellent researchers and academics who have studied humans and violence. Stephen Pinker and Gavin de Becker are world-renowned in their studies of human behaviour and violence and show that the incidences of violence are less in terms of prevalence and degrees of actual bodily harm since we began as a species to harm each other (Seriously good reads by both of these authors and I recommend them both).So what does this mean in terms of this article? Well as the new term begins, new pupils, new topics of ‘social media’ issues, well you may find your pupils talk about terror, fear, violence, graphic issues and terrorism much more. This is because Manchester, Grenfell, Barcelona and Finland, North Korea etc have been given much more ‘airtime’ through social media. The increase of this airtime is likely to increase the awareness of this topic into younger peoples lives (year 7-11) and their understanding of this topic is likely to be limited in terms of cognitive skills (reasoning, critical thinking and executive functions- see Pinker’s work). In turn, this may mean they can become fearful of a topic due to limited understanding and ‘gossip’ from their peers who are also in the same frame of reference. I’m sure you all have an understanding of this with the ‘ghost/zombie’ stories we all heard and participated in during adolescence; fear breeds fear.If this is applied to a social media frame then you should be able to see how the miscommunication of fear-based stories of violence create an anxiety in young people that is then further communicated in the hope of understanding it. As teachers I feel you can help your pupils learn to think critically and by challenging the facts around the news stories yourself and with your pupils. You may be able to appease the fear and anxiety somewhat by having these discussions rather than avoiding them. The hopeful news is, as a species we are actually less violent now than in the past. Due to the medium of social media, we can now discuss and share incidents much faster and become aware of issues that in the past would have happened, perhaps in another country (without our awareness). We are actually overloaded with this kind of information and this can skew our thinking in a negative way. What are the options? Perhaps this is the kind of educated debate we can have with young people to support critical thinking, challenge the status quo of fear-based news, create a balanced view of events and also provide ourselves with a reassurance that the world is not as violent as we think and that fear should be our intuitive gift, rather than our daily bread & butter served up with lashings of anxiety, worry and speculation. Let’s change the menu.