Tag Archives: community

The true value of friendship in a digital age

Friendship. There’s an old fashioned concept. Friends are integral to our personal narrative; they enable us to chart a course through sometimes choppy times in our lives.

Authors and playwrights through the ages have viewed relations between friends as a gift that keeps on giving as the ups and downs of friendship offer a priceless range of dramatic encounters. And let’s not forget the problematic friendships in the myriad of soaps which wall paper our TV viewing throughout the year.

Yet where does friendship, a cornerstone of our lives, rest in the digital world? In the space of a decade, friendship in the real world is facing a challenge from online activities of “friends” in the virtual world. It seems bizarre that someone unknown, in reality, can have such an impact in the world of flesh and blood. The recent press coverage of two teenagers who for varying reasons decided to take their own lives because of their interaction with the virtual world is both tragic and cautionary.

I wonder whether the blurring in young people’s lives of who lies within their circle of friends is becoming an issue which needs to be addressed more robustly in schools? Of course schools are meticulous in offering advice on safe use of the Internet both to pupils and parents. The dangers of engagement with strangers in the online world are stressed “ad nauseum”.

I should like to suggest a parallel strategy which focuses on valuing friendship with people in the real world. The ever present smartphone and ceaseless text messaging inevitably corrodes the value of the personal engagement with the friend you are meant to be spending time with. Friendships arguably are now framed more loosely and perhaps therefore are in danger of being undervalued.

Schools are perfectly placed to offer a counter balance to the shadowy relationships forged in the ether. Young people today require clearer guidance on the importance of maintaining good relationships with real people. The school community is a microcosm of life and is able to offer a moral framework for young people helping them develop in a positive way, believing in themselves whilst being sympathetic to the needs of others. And most importantly understanding the value of an opinion within a context which is rationale. School life is real life with known individuals and accountability for one’s actions.

I know that so much amazing stuff already happens in schools to foster good relationships and encourage a sense of belonging. Of course there is no government metric to measure well-being. However, anyone working in a school appreciates the importance of individuals being at ease with themselves and those around them. Strong friendships are still being made. My concern is that these real life friendships are not tainted by the “like/unlike” world of the Internet and that young people understand the value of the former and the limitations of the latter.

Who better to offer commentary on the value of friendship in the real world than William Shakespeare:

“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”

Lesson in connecting and giving.

Erica Denton, 5, helping sell Comic Relief merchandise outside Oxfam in Saffron Walden.

Erica Denton, 5, helping sell Comic Relief merchandise outside Oxfam in Saffron Walden.

Comic Relief raised a record breaking £75 million on the 25th Red Nose Day when an assortment of celebrities and the great British public did something funny for money. At one stage during the evening 10,000 volunteers at BT were taking 200 calls per second and, over the course of the evening, nearly half a million calls were answered. This at a time when the economy is sluggish and belts are being tightened.

Events such as this provide us with an opportunity to hold a mirror up to our nation. Just as the Olympics and Paralympics beamed back at us and made us feel huge levels of collective pride, Comic Relief warms our hearts as we rejoice in levels of compassion which are staggering.

So why are occasions like Red Nose Day successful in connecting with so many of us? To understand this it is important to reflect on what motivates individuals. In this context, I was reminded of the presentation on Mindfulness given by Professor Felicia Huppert at our recent “What is learning for?” conference. There is a growing body of science espoused by Professor Huppert, among others, which essentially focuses on the importance of positivity in promoting wellbeing, an integral factor in our mental health. Two key elements in the path to wellbeing are ‘connecting with those around you’ and ‘giving to others’. Comic Relief absolutely captures both of these elements.

So what happens in our daily lives to promote positivity? This is clearly an important consideration in the life of a school community where young people are developing emotionally. Gone are the days when Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” resonates as real life experience. Schools’ pastoral investment in young people today is huge. Those of us lucky enough to watch “Educating Essex”, a series about students and teachers at the Passmore Academy, witnessed the level of care and dedication of staff supporting their charges during really challenging times.

Yet, according to the theory behind wellbeing, the emphasis should be on the individual adopting a positive approach. Building on connection with others and the act of giving, a school community is well placed to foster positivity. Many schools, ours included, pride themselves on their sense of social responsibility. We view ourselves as part of the community in Cambridge and are keen for our students to play an active role in our city. Illustrative of this for us is the success of our outreach programme this year. What has been particularly striking to me is the value our students place on this engagement with the lives of others. A recent assembly presented by sixth formers involved in this year’s Shine project (part of our outreach programme), was a heart-warming account of the relationships established with the 10 year olds involved in the project from other schools. The learning outcome of the project was as much the trust created between sixth formers and their young charges, as the creative arts project which had united them at the beginning.

Positivity therefore is a mind-set which can be nurtured. A sense of service and making a difference is not pure altruism; to encourage and facilitate constructive interaction with others for no material reward is arguably the most important activity for an individual’s wellbeing. Just ask the hundreds of thousands of people who did something funny for money on Red Nose Day.

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