The Social Contract

Lets start with a statement I never envisaged writing when starting this blog. Jeremy Hunt said some interesting things this week. Yes, that Jeremy Hunt.

Mr Hunt was speaking at an event looking at mental health services for children and young people. The Education Policy Institute (EPI) had published a report looking at this issue in which they made a number of recommendations about what schools should do in this area. We are used to the idea that no report from a think tank is complete without recommendations for extra workload in schools, but this is an important area that we should take very seriously.

I have my own views about the level of the mental health issues among young people and how it relates to schools, but that’s not the main issue I want to look at here.

So, on to the interesting bit. Mr. Hunt spoke about the links between social media and mental health issues and asked the following question:

“Why is it that mobile phone companies allow people to send a text with a sexually explicit image in it? Surely, there is absolutely no reason why people under 18 couldn’t just be blocked from sending those kinds of images?”

What I want to do here is explore that question a little, specifically with respect to schools and the impact it has on a day-to-day basis. I also want to look at what we can realistically do and what we can’t.

Firstly, lets tackle the question directly. The reason mobile phone companies can’t do what he asked is that they have no way of knowing that the person using the phone is under eighteen. There is no age verification process for buying phones and even if there were there would be nothing to stop me buying a phone and giving it to someone else. Also, most of the sites that create these issues are not just phone based but web-based platforms so you would have to have age verification on the user account. Again, something we don’t have. Even if you could age verify the owner of the account you could not ensure that only that person was using the account. Unless you mandated the use of some form of biometric identity checker with the platform.

So you can’t block under-age users doing things simply, using technology. The providers could prohibit the transfer of any such imagery (where its systems could detect it) for all users and only enable it for those who could age verify themselves using biometrics. But that is not going to happen. It just isn’t. We can argue all day if it should or shouldn’t. But it just isn’t.

So what can we do for children to prevent this undesirable activity. And I am very clear it is undesirable. There are usually three solutions put forward to prevent this.

Firstly there is the nuclear option. Ban under eighteens from owning phones. Ok, you can debate this if you want. I have better things to do with my time. This is another of those things that is simply not going to happen. Mainly for many of the same reasons quoted above about age verification. But mainly because you can’t put silly string back in the can.

The next suggestion is usually that we should prohibit students from bringing their phones into school. That prevents them doing these things in school time. It doesn’t prevent them doing it any other time. There are two issues here. We can argue this is a good thing because it reduces the activity. But my sense is that most of this activity takes place outside of school. Yes, there is viewing etc. in school, but the actual photographing and dissemination is done in the student’s own time. The second thing is the impact is not the event itself, it’s the consequences of it. For the student it doesn’t matter where the phone is used to do it. The impact on them is the same. Which is pretty much the situation for the school as well. The time and effort (and the distress) of dealing with, for example, the aftermath of sexting incidents have no regard to where or when the sexting occurred. The inevitability is that the consequences always come back on the school as the first port of call to deal with. Whether it’s clearing up the immediate fall out between students, or dealing with the longer term mental health issued caused.

The final suggestion is the one that is usually put forward by wimpy liberals like myself. “We have to educate the children about their use of technology, yada yada.” I’m not going to row back on this 100% but at the moment there are real children being damaged and real teachers having to deal with grotesque incidents and I’m of the mind that the wimpy liberal response, on its own, just isn’t enough. Not right now.

So we have to have a different approach. A fourth way (yeah, I know, Blairite to the end, that’s me).

Here’s the framework of how we can start to tackle this problem. I’m putting it out there in the certain knowledge it won’t work for all. It won’t stop every abuse. It won’t ensure no teacher ever has to deal with this again. But I think it will improve things. And I’m sure that many of you are already doing some, if not all these things.

It’s not a single approach, they don’t work. It’s a list of things we can all do. Today.

We have to understand that there are confines within which we have to work.

  • Expect no help from the telcos or the platform providers beyond what they already do. Which is not a lot.
  • Do not expect much help beyond the usual posturing and a small amount of misdirected cash from government.
  • Do not expect to be able to completely prevent young people from accessing social media platforms.
  • Understand that students are likely to have access to a smartphone for at least part of the day.

First there are some physical things we can do. But they require active engagement with parents.

Students should not be permitted to access social media sites before the minimum age set by most of those platforms. For most this is thirteen. I would extend this in school to actively preventing access before the end of year eight. This is a change to my previous thinking where I would have put the cut off at start of secondary (the 13yo limit is based on US middle school age cut offs).

How can we do this?

I would insert this in home school agreements. In of itself this would not be sufficient so there needs to be the additional part of the agreement that enables staff to check on any device the student has that these apps are not installed. And where the student does not facilitate this then the phone is confiscated and not returned until it is. This is perhaps a degree of additional work, but it is predicable and will help reduce incidents. There are already provisions in law that allow schools to open a students phone where they suspect wrongdoing, and I have previously been critical of this. I believe that normalising this checking as a preventative measure is a different and more effective approach. I would not like this approach to be taken with older children who are using social media unless there was clear evidence of a threat to the wellbeing of a child.

Overall the intention is that this checking will reduce the likelihood that students are using these networks. Most use of social media by younger people is via smartphones and tablet devices. Ensuring they do not have them on their smartphones in school will prevent them using them that way out of school – they are unlikely to load them up and delete them outside of school. Also, and some may not like this bit, it also suggests that if this approach is effective then it is best to allow students to bring their smartphones to school to facilitate this checking. And to allow them to use those phones to normalise their use in appropriate situations. This will make it less likely that a student will risk losing their phone by not keeping to the home school agreement provisions.

Some might argue that this approach should be extended through the period of compulsory schooling. My view is that would not be beneficial as it would not then allow students time, in a safe space, to develop appropriate habits for social media.

This approach will only have an impact if it is positively and consistently enforced, not in a punitive, but in a preventative way.

I am not convinced there is anything that can be done further in terms of physically preventing the use of the technology.

Which brings us on to (cue wimpy liberal drum roll), education. Which comes in two parts.

I think it is fair to say that attempts at educating students in the appropriate use of social media has to date been patchy. More often than not it is done as a discrete and often isolated part of PHSE or ICT in a “this week we’re doing the dangers of social media” kind of approach. It is often done by teachers who are not expert in the subject. Children are shown a few video clips produced by the DfEs current favourite social enterprise start-up and job done. I am stereo-typing and exaggerating, obviously your school doesn’t do it this way. But others do.

This has to change. We know students learn best when knowledge is presented to them by experts and is revisited and rehearsed. This is one of the things that the ban until year nine will help facilitate by giving a breathing space so this education can take place when many students have developed the maturity to profit from it. It wont need to be done in a rushed way right at the start of their time in the school. We also need to find way to provide positive role models for social media use in schools so that students see the benefits from appropriate use.

I would also like to see a test developed that helped parents consider whether their child was ready for the world of social media. This could be modelled on the driving theory test where not only factual knowledge is considered but there is scenario based testing as well. Yes, a test can be passed without being certain the right lessons have been learnt, but it is a start. DfE should research and fund this development.

That’s students. That’s the easy job.

Now for the hard job. The one you will say is not your job.

The parents.

In a generation or two we won’t have to do this. Today’s teenagers are growing in their understanding of the benefits and pitfalls of technology and social media. They won’t make many of the mistakes with their kids that their parents have made with them.

But for now we have to help. And schools are best placed to provide this help. Cos thru the kids they have a direct line to the adults. And long term it will save schools time and effort and distress. Maybe not your school, but across the system.

I have seen some of the presentations available for parents. They are heavy on the fear and often quite light on the practical help.

There are a number of things that parents can be told to help provide consistency.

  • Open phone policy – parents must have the lock codes for their childs phone. This is fundamental. If the parent doesn’t know what apps are on the phone then frankly they cannot keep their child safe. My kids are used to the idea that they ask me before any app is installed on their phone. This needs to become the norm.
  • No devices in bedrooms (keep all the charging cables downstairs)
  • Turn off the internet well before bedtime (the more tech savvy can use access control lists on the router to limit times, the less tech savvy can just turn it off)

The school should run regular sessions for parents on social media risks and issues and how to monitor and understand their childs usage. This should be developmental and not just a one off lecture. This can be supplemented by maintaining links to supporting guidance on the school website. If the DfE is serious about child protection issues they would provide meaningful funding for schools to enable this and funding to develop a compelling programme.

There can never be guarantee’s that parents will heed these warnings (or even turn up) but if parental engagement is linked to students being permitted to use the technology and this is supported by the educative and physical measures noted above then we have a better chance of it working. The approach I have outlined is an holistic one where all parts of the process support and rely the others. It is this approach which I see is often missing and why so much effort often doesn’t lead to the improvements we seek. A lot of the individual pieces of the puzzle are there but they’ve not always been put together to make the right picture.

We have to get to the stage where everyone recognises that there need to be different levels of access for children than there are for adults. We also need children to see that it is better to have easier access to one part of the sweetie shop at the cost of being barred from another part until they can be trusted not to eat until they are sick, because the providers are not going to this for them. They have to be taught to regulate themselves.

When I was young we had a library round the corner on the edge of the estate. Through the front door was the librarians’ desk. On the left was the children’s section. On the right, the adults section. When we came with the school we were only allowed on the left. When I came with my mum I was occasionally allowed to go to the right to look at the encyclopaedias. As I got a little older I was allowed to turn right on my own and browse, as long as I showed the librarian what I was reading. Eventually I was allowed to take out whichever books I wanted.

That’s where we need to get. Others will have better ideas than I have here how to do it. If you do, please share them.