When Tim Berners-Lee invented the Internet had he any concept of what would follow? Today we live in a world which is both real and virtual and, at times, the boundaries between the two become blurred – with tragic results. Amanda Todd, a 15 year old teenager, decided in September to take her own life. In her short life she had suffered a degree of depression and anxiety which made death more desirable.
Growing up in Canada, she was just like any other teenager – she was curious and she pushed a few boundaries. When she was in 7th grade, in the privacy of her own bedroom, Amanda was engaging with someone in the online world. Unfortunately this kind of risky behaviour is more common than parents would like to believe. Yet Amanda was only behaving like many other teenagers across the world. She was messing around and unwisely she was interacting with some one unknown to her. Amanda was urged by the anonymous individual online to bare her breasts to a webcam. Without any thought for the consequences, she responded to this and in doing so sowed the seeds of her subsequent depression and suicide.
We know Amanda Todd’s story because, before she took her own life, she bravely decided to create a video which was a bleak warning for others about engaging thoughtlessly with the darker side of the online world. According to Amanda’s YouTube video, a year after she flashed the man online, he tracked her down on Facebook and forwarded her topless photo to everyone. She was bullied at each school she went to, beaten up by angry girls and attempted to kill herself by drinking bleach.
This tragic story must be every parent’s nightmare. There exists now a space beyond the physical world where a parent cannot protect their child; a virtual space which is not governed by the same mores and conventions which over the centuries have evolved as part of our civilised society. Does this mean young people’s access to the Internet should be restricted? Certainly in my school we operate a filter which polices any potential abuse of our network. However, acting as the gate keeper to the Internet is not enough. A school in partnership with parents must empower young people to be their own gate keepers. A technological device has no inbuilt moral compass. The ethical battery is not included.
In today’s hi-tech world the imperative to educate young people in old fashioned values is more important than ever. Although young people are growing up in a digital age and are far quicker to adapt to technology than adults, what they lack – by definition – is the maturity and wisdom which properly equips them for life in the amoral virtual world. As educators, we must address this by ensuring that the schooling of our young people is as much about building character as examination results.
The Internet offers the most extraordinary and powerful learning gateway – I believe that it is transformative. The possibilities for research and collaboration are infinite as the learning environment is global and not confined to the physical footprint of a school. Such is our commitment to drawing on the power of the Internet, we have equipped our staff and pupils in the senior school with iPads, embracing technology as an integral part of our school’s learning environment. In this way the virtual world is firmly anchored in the moral compass of the real world – our school community and the family – empowering our students to explore this brave new world responsibly.