Category Archives: Social media

Is social media a game changer within our society?

“Social media is an extension and mirror of ourselves. Don’t forget that. At both ends is eventually a person.” This tweet by Matt Esterman (@mesterman ), Australian educator, articulates beautifully within the 140 character Twitter limit the reality of social media. The trolling and bullying which dominates media headlines depicts such activities with characteristic hysteria (whether merited or not) and in such a way to suggest social media per se is a twenty first century vehicle of evil.

Certainly there have been high profile cases of extraordinary ugliness where individuals have been vilified. The unsavoury Twitter assault on Caroline Criado-Perez, feminist campaigner, threatened her safety and indeed has resulted in two prosecutions. Although traumatised by the graphic nature of the Tweets, Caroline was determined not to be cowered by it and worked closely with the Crown Prosecution to hold her attackers accountable. And Mary Beard, the Cambridge Classicist, famously was helped to unmask a troll when a family friend of the young man who happened to be a Twitter follower of Professor Beard threatened to tell his mother about his behaviour if he did not apologise!

This social media phenomenon of on-line “hate” is so profound in its impact that it is attracting serious academic research, which aims to understand and mitigate this behaviour. For example, researchers at the Schools of Social Sciences and Computer Science and Informatics at Cardiff University have joined forces with internet giants Google in a bid to help understand ‘hate speech’ on social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. This project aims to study the ‘social media ecosystem’ to gain a better understanding of the complex interaction between user behaviours, communication networks and flows of information and how this can generate socially disruptive content. Dr William Housley from the Cardiff School of Social Sciences who is leading the project said:

“This is an innovative project that will generate computational social scientific insight into antagonistic online behaviour. The project will empirically explore the balance between community, social cohesion, identity and freedom of speech within digital society, economy and culture. Policy makers, commercial providers and relevant agencies require empirical data and social scientific interpretation in order to shape policy formulation, intervention and inform wider debates about the emerging contours, rights and obligations of digital citizenship in a 21st Century Democracy.”

This research is illustrative of how we, as a society, need to view social media activity through the prism of a digital world where previous contours of behaviour have moved beyond our real world experience. Currently we react to what is in effect bad behaviour of varying degrees of severity as if our regular way of ensuring justice prevails will maintain the status quo. Interestingly, Caroline Criado-Perez made the observation that, whilst two of her trollers were imprisoned, many more were still enjoying their liberty and presumably an opportunity to spew hate at others.

The CPS of course is grappling with this phenomenon on a daily basis. When should a prosecution be sought? Has social media expanded the limits of what is acceptable? What about freedom of speech? And is it actually really just an unwelcome reality that people have always had a propensity to behave hatefully and social media merely provides a digital platform to target their hate? Clearly the unintended consequences of social media offers huge challenges to our society at every level.

So what is to be done? Within the context of a school environment educators have a responsibility to ensure everyone in the school community understands their rights and obligations as a digital citizen. The moral compass must extend to the virtual world, which is very real indeed for our young people. If our young understand that social media is “a mirror and extension of ourselves” rather than an anonymous activity where normal mores do not apply, they are better placed to be responsible digital adults. After all, the digital revolution is an acknowledged game changer in so many areas. Let’s face up to arguably the most fundamental change – to our culture and society.

“Social media and social conscience” by Molly Pugh age 15

Social media allows us to connect in ways we never had before. We have the potential to make links with people you would never normally encounter – of different social standing, race and even living on the other side of the world. However, there is a danger that social media can shut people off from the wider world, instead of helping them embrace it. By using websites like Facebook and Twitter, people surround themselves with their friends, their family and their social circles. Even on Twitter people follow people they have common interests with such as a celebrities. This can lead to young people in the West being surrounded by their predominantly privileged culture.

Young people, without rare proactive interest, don’t see the huge breaches of human rights and the grotesque amounts of suffering going on around the world today. This combined with what I feel is the growing perception that being an activist of any kind has become unfashionable in the west’s middle classes, certainly In Britain, has created a distressing reality that world suffering is becoming increasingly ignored. Whilst it should not go unmentioned that there are of course socially aware young people in our society, I feel strongly that there are not enough. In my school, which has a strong sense of social responsibility, the Prom Committee in year 10 was the most popular committee by far, whilst Amnesty was the least. This is illustrative of a challenge which faces our society. If young people aren’t taught to be socially and globally conscious then surely, in the enclosed world of social media, they are ill prepared for when they reach adulthood. This is further proven by the astounding fact that in 2005 more 18-34 year olds voted in the Big Brother Contest than in the general election.

Social media whilst having huge possibilities, with 552 million daily users on Facebook alone, often lets itself down by surrounding people with their cultures and comfort zones, and not forcing them to see the massive and more important issues that the world is facing. The main issue is how can we use social media to enhance people’s social conscience, instead of hindering it?

Fact about the Big Brother Voting from
Fact about the Facebook usage from

The rise and fall of Paris Brown IRL (In Real Life)

Paris Brown, 17 years old, and in many respects a typical teenager. She gave an engaging performance on BBC Breakfast recently as she was unveiled as the country’s first Youth Police and Crime Commissioner. However, the maelstrom which engulfed the unfortunate Paris following this announcement captures well the challenges of growing up in today’s world.

Paris Brown IRL

Paris Brown

Unfortunately for Paris she had committed what appears to be the ultimate sin in our digital age. She had shared with Twitter, when younger, thoughts which were very stupid and for which she was lambasted by the national media and an assorted group of people in public life quick to admonish the teenager. Keith Vaz, no less, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, demanded she stepped down from her post instantly.

Not for a moment do I condone Paris’s Tweets, however, as someone who has observed teenagers in a school setting, dare I say that they can be very, very stupid. The benefit of a school community is that mistakes can be made. And the average teenager will make mistakes. The key is that they learn from it and move on.

The contrition expressed by Paris appeared genuine to me and if she had made her comments in the real world she rightly would have been strongly chastised. To make racist or homophobic comments is unacceptable – end of. Sadly for Paris, Tweets posted when she was younger were deemed to have defined her and were ergo unforgivable.

Is it the unintended consequence of the social media age that the previously ephemeral mistakes of the teenage years, the careless or thoughtless comments which would not bear scrutiny in the adult world, are now indelibly stamped on an individual’s identity forever? If this is indeed the case, we have reached a watershed moment. It is not only the young who need to learn a lesson from the tragic rise and fall of Paris Brown. So too do those of us who did not grow up with social media. It is difficult for me to appreciate the lure of the virtual world which is all too real to young people. Whether it is Twitter or Facebook, their digital life is as important as their life in the real world. Their engagement is total and self-censorship minimal.

In school, we see this played out in the youngsters’ everyday lives. Bad behaviour which in the past was the preserve of the school playground has migrated to the digital world where it takes on a new power. Schools are required now to have a policy on cyberbullying which is designed to address a digital version of sadly predictable behaviour, aimed to support the victim. Yet it is arguable that the perpetrator is creating a digital footprint which could well come back to haunt them in their adult life.

As employers and universities increasingly trawl the web for an insight into the virtual world of individuals, it strikes me that we need to take a view on a life lived in a digital age.

I think we can take it as a given that a typical teenager will at some point post something on social media which is regrettable. Surely in the adult world we should be capable of taking account of context. The uncensored thoughts of someone when growing up may or may not reveal the best about that individual. But given the journey of life, we must allow for maturity and life experiences to act upon and more than likely change an individual’s character.

So let us use the cautionary tale of Paris Brown as a sanity check. For sure, schools are doing their bit to educate young people about the pitfalls of the digital world and the notion of a digital footprint. Yet, youngsters will nonetheless make mistakes which is part of growing up. It behoves adults to understand this – by doing so we are demonstrating a proper understanding of the digital age.

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Tweachers global voice


I read a surreal Twitter exchange recently between an astronaut and William Shatner, the erstwhile Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame.  The actor queried whether Commander Hadfield was tweeting from space.  His response?  “Yes, standard orbit Captain.  And we are detecting signs of life on earth.”  This convergence of science fiction and science fact is serendipitous. But it also points to a greater issue. The world imagined in the past is increasingly becoming aligned to the world we live in today.  The canny observation “be careful what you wish for” has never been so pertinent.

So how does today’s world shape up to the imagination of the last century? The showcase TV programme which reported on innovation in my younger years was “Tomorrow’s World”. The cool theme music and urbane Raymond Baxter heralded a range of ideas which challenged our perception of the possible.  One of the show’s presenters was Maggie Philbin who in later life shared her reflections on the many and varied inventions demonstrated on ‘Tomorrow’s World’:

”I would love to say I recognised their significance immediately but often the technology was fragile or incomplete – a mixture of space age and Stone Age – and the real potential was hidden… During my years on the show I saw the mobile phone downsize from one you could fit in a suitcase to one you could carry on your own but which cost £3,000. I remember BT lending me one for a weekend, so I would get the hang of it. I had given the number to my husband, who rang me while I was on the train home. I like to think I was the first person to say: “I’m on a train!” The whole carriage stared and shared my excitement that it was indeed possible to make a call on the 18.35 out of Paddington…”

Ms Philbin’s point about not necessarily identifying the transformational technology is as relevant today as it was then.  It is now a truism that digital technology is transforming our lives in quite fundamental ways.  The virtual world is as prevalent in our lives as the real, raising all kinds of issues we had never anticipated.  This is arguably the greatest challenge for educators today.

Illustrative of this is social media. Let me take Twitter.  For many, Twitter is a self-absorbed platform for individuals who want to share their every waking hour with “followers” foolish enough to take an interest in them.  I thought that too.  However, it is clear that something quite extraordinary has happened over the last year in the world of education.  Recently the Times Educational Supplement ran a piece on the rise of the educational ‘tweeter’ during 2012 (or tweachers!). Across the globe Twitter connects a broad spectrum of people who are united in their interest in learning.  And Twitter is very democratic.  It matters little if you are a senior member of staff or a professor in a university; what matters is that you have something to contribute to the on-going debate about the future of education in our different schools, in our different countries.

Certainly for me, Twitter has opened a window to a fantastic world of ideas and thinking which I find stimulating and challenging.  Indeed at times dialogue between tweeters can take on a Socratic quality.  Which is really the point.  Far from “dumbing down” our thinking, Twitter has provided a vehicle for promoting genuine and meaningful debate across continents.  And who would ever have anticipated this back in 2006 when the world of Twitter was born?