The topic of morality in a digital age has concerned me for a while. With the climate of technology changing at such a fast pace, how do we teach our young people to follow an online, as well as a real life, moral code? Traditionally, teenagers are encouraged to be rebellious and challenge order, but the lines of morality have become so blurred, I doubt they even know where to start with their rebellion. I was listening to a discussion about the German philosopher Kant, and it struck me that what he was advocating in the 18th Century is exactly what we need today. We need a global moral code where we know and accept moral boundaries that are not directly linked to any religion, but are based in human decency. We need to remind people that it is not just about doing the right thing, it also has to be for the right reason. We need to strive to give teenagers safe and enlightening arenas for personal exploration.
I have worked with teenagers for all of my adult life, I am also the mother to three teenagers. Today’s children and adolescents receive ‘education’ about alcohol, drugs, sexual diseases – but what they tell us, and this was confirmed by the girls in our recent ‘Raising Self-Belief’ group was that what really gets to them is peer pressure. What appears to be missing from the formality of their education is the moral code. When should they start to drink – if ever? When is is ok to have sex? Who can they trust to talk to if things go wrong? What if they make a mistake and it is put on social media for everyone to see? They need a new rule book. They don’t feel capable of setting these boundaries for themselves. As a youngster I never had to worry that much about what I did, there was limited exposure. My own moral code was mainly developed through my love of reading, of both books and magazines. For today’s teenagers, one mistake has the potential for an individual to receive global ridicule. This is becoming an unbearably heavy burden. Is it any wonder that issues realted to mental health are on the increase?
A girl in my daughter’s year, (Year 7 at the time) was self-harming, taking a photograph and then sending this to everyone in Year 7 by Snapchat. This girl clearly needed help. I told my daughter to stop following her and rang the Head of Year. I do feel desperately sorry for the girl. What is happening in an 11 years old’s life to drive them to such measures? But is also highlights how often children who would not normally self-harm, or even know of its existence, are exposed to such images on an almost daily rate. The girl clearly has not got the emotional capacity to appreciate how her actions could impact on others. But I do feel she needs to understand that it is not just about how she is feeling, it as also about the influence she is wielding over her peers. At age 11, girls should not be personally exposed to such images. Teaching students about social media is not just about legality, it is also about morality. It is not just about the increase in mental health, it is also about what children are exposed to at a young age who, in the past, would have had no idea that such things even happened. I have no answers other than reinforcing my argument about the need to establish what is morally right. It is up to parents and schools to be vigilant and minimse the dark side of social media as a means of protecting and educating our children.
Everyone was in a state of shock after the bombing at the Manchester Arena. The general consensus that terrorists targeting young girls at a pop concert was an all time low. On the evening of the bombing, I asked my son, who was in Year 9 at the time, if he knew anyone who had been at the concert, and was everyone safe? He had not know anyone personally, but he said ‘some girl had been at the concert and posted pictues of the dead bodies’ and then sent them around on social media. When I questioned why he followed someone so lacking in any morality or sense, he then confirmed that he didn’t even know her. The image got to him through the chain of ‘likes’. How can parents stop this? It is almost impossible to police. Why does a 14 year old girl think it is acceptable to do this? Is there no empathy for the victims and their families? Are some teenagers so obsessed with the amount of ‘likes’ they can achieve that all decency is abandoned in the pusuit of 5 seconds of ‘fame’? Can they not appreciate that this is not TV or YouTube? It is real life, and they are real victims. It actually reminded me of Lady Macbeth when she tells Macbeth ‘The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures’ when she is trying to convince Macbeth to ignore his feelings of guilt after killing King Duncan. Children need to fully understand that witnessing and sharing a real crime is very different to watching a film or a TV programme. I don’t want my son exposed to the reality of the dead bodies at 14 years old. He can’t take that image away once he has seen it. As a society we also need to be concerned that our young people becoming desensitised to the realities of death. This is why we need a moral code for the digital age. It needs to be something simple that everyone can understand and implement instinctively.
Even in our relatively small town, there have been incidences where teenagers and their families have had to move to different areas because of online mistakes. On example is where a teenage girl was groomed in to performing a sexual act by webcam by an older man ‘just for him’. He then proceeded to spread the film across social media to the point where the poor girl could not escape. She had thought it was private. Yet again, this is about morality. When young girls are groomed and manipulated in such a way, people are too quick to judge the teenagers and not the man. This needs to change. Nevertheless, we also need to encourage teenagers to ask themselves questions. They need to develop an instinct for what is going to get them into trouble. Such events are not exclusive to today’s teenagers, but what has changed is that the level of exposure and the ultimate consequences are far more reaching than they ever were for previous generations.
We must stop teaching children to automatically respect adults. It is a societal myth that all adults have the best interests of children at heart. This must be part of the new moral code – not all adults can be trusted. Young people need to be encouraged to be discerning enough to be able to recognise the inappropriate behaviour of adults. There are some adults whose sole purpose is their own gratification and this is at the expense of children. I distinctly remember an interview with Professor Winston where he was challenged about children having ‘less respect’ these days. Professor Winston’s response has always stayed with me. He basically said what we need to is the exact opposite. If children feel instinctively unsafe with an adult, then they need to act on their instinct, not on societal codes of automatically respecting adults. The same can be said online. Youngsters need to be taught to be automatically suspicious of any adult that engages with them online.
The starting point for our children should be that adults set good example. I was shocked to note that at a recent funeral I attended, some people were taking selfies with the coffin at the crematorium- and then posting these pictures on Facebook as their ‘last moment’ with the person just before the curtain was drawn. Words fail me. Another example was when a friend of mine was tagged in a photograph, but not actually in it. The caption described ‘The great send off for… and what an excellent night they had all had – a great catch up’. I thought that someone was off travelling and they had all had a get together before they went. In actual fact, it was a funeral of a woman who had committed suicide. Words fail me, again. Traditionally, you never hired a photographer for a funeral. There was always a moral code of ‘respect for the dead’. Maybe I am being old fashioned and this is the new way to ‘celebrate’ the life of someone. BUT does it have to go on Facebook? What kind of example is this to our children? Is it any wonder they are confused? We need a new moral code for the digital age linked to how to deal with death.
Online trolling and the truly horrendous and abusive comments that some adults feel are perfectly acceptable to publically post online goes some way to exposing the issue society has with adults who have never gained, or have totally lost, their moral compass. We need to aim to re-set this, to show our young people the boundary for acceptability. There is a difference beteween:
President Trump and his incessant Tweeting is as good as an example as any of why you need to THINK before you send anything out in the public eye. Maybe his appointment will serve us well in the long term and demonstrate exactly how NOT to behave in a public online arena.
– Do not write anything you would not say to someone’s face;
– If you would be upset to receive the comment you have written – don’t send it;
– ‘Tone’ is difficult to achieve through a keyboard, if your point could be misconstrued as spite – don’t send it;
– Always KNOW who you are communicationg with;
– Write as if your grandma is reading your comments- the public arena is very different to being with a few discreet friends;
– Before you post anything remotely controversial – empathise. Would you like someone putting the same image/comment about you?
– If it is something that would not be allowed on manistream TV before 9.00pm, it should not be posted online;
– If it is something you instinctlively feel should be a secret, it is most likely inappropriate – with the potential of being harmful;
– Operate in private group chats – although there can be issues – at least it is not public.
These are just a few examples. But I really do think we need to make a start. Young people need boundaries, they need to be taught how to behave. The sheer global scale of immediate and almost unlimited access to the internet has triggered so many changes, it is almost like we have all got to catch up. We all need to work together to alleviate the social anxieties presented by our young people, that are then exacerbated by social media. Technology can be amazing, but we need to focus on what is great, and strive to eliminate what is damaging. We need a new moral code for the digital age.