Last month, the phenomenon of cyber bullying became headline news when Conservative MP Louise Mensch spoke out against the onslaught of misogynistic abuse to which she had been subjected on the micro-blogging site Twitter. Mensch is a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. The comments, many of them explicit and most of them of highly personal, were prompted by the publication of the Committee’s report of its enquiry into allegations of phone hacking at New International.
Several months earlier, in November last year, viewers of the Channel 4 series Educating Essex witnessed for themselves how pupils at Passmores School in Harlow use Facebook to divide and rule amongst their fellow 11 to 16-year olds. Within minutes of it beginning, an incident of bullying involving two pupils scrapping in a corridor came to the notice of the majority of the school’s pupil population, with a few posts on Facebook doing a far swifter job of drawing attention to the fracas than a public address system could have done. At all schools now, the impact of social media presents significant challenges to teachers in managing bullying. Passmores School, it is worth stating, is an outstanding school, according its most recent Ofsted inspection – the very best the state system has to offer.
Is abuse that happens online any less offensive and destructive than face-to-face verbal assault? Mensch was asking a question of particular significance for her. On that basis, it’s easy to dismiss it. The incidents involving the Select Committee and the secondary school could be said to sit at the extreme edge of the negative impact of social media.
It’s a risky conclusion to draw, though. 10 years ago, a TV would have been the window on the big wide world from the domestic sphere, a passive screen transmitting the choice of a growing number of broadcasters. Now, millions of us can and do interact with anyone, anywhere in the world from an armchair – with close friends, casual acquaintances, current and former colleagues, and strangers we will never meet.
With 82.5 per cent of the UK population regular internet users – higher than the European average of 61 per cent – most of us now have a virtual life running alongside or integrated with our ‘actual’ lives. In the corner of the kitchen or living room sits a laptop, at home with the cooking, chatting and childrearing going on around it. For lots of people, tweeting, blogging, sharing photographs on Facebook and Flickr and films on YouTube have become second nature.
What does this mean for the writers of the 2.8 million email messages sent every second, for the composers of the 250 million tweets posted each day and for the 15 per cent of bloggers who spend 10 or more hours each week blogging? How many of us, if pressed, would be able to describe what moral code informs our treatment of our numerous online encounters?
Technology-enabled forums present specific challenges when it comes to individual behaviour and the common good. In the 15 or so years that online learning and its offshoots – forums, chat rooms – have been used in further and higher education, the emphasis for institutions has been on developing protocols which facilitate interaction between teachers and students and maximise learning outcomes for students. For the most part, participants, whether students or teachers, are left to their own devices. There is an assumption by institutions that the appropriate use agreements which users signed up to when they first enrolled will be observed. Where does the balance lie between tutor moderation and individual responsibility?
This question has arguably greater relevance in a higher education context than in others, as achieving the objective of independent learning lies at the heart of how courses are developed. Like many seemingly simple questions, it leads to others, of increasing complexity. Is it the case that harsh words written down do less damage than words that are spoken? Should students themselves take responsibility for their peers by intervening online if they read an abusive post? Is it reasonable to expect tutors to moderate between students exhibiting what is, when all’s said and done, discourtesy of a kind they wouldn’t in most cases even consider if they were in a lecture theatre?
Turning, finally, to the creative arts, can less than courteous behaviour on the part of tutors and students be avoided by separating the creator from the created? Learning almost certainly takes place when a painting is critiqued, but it’s hard to see what learning outcome could result from an insult thrown in the direction of the painter.
The mechanics of using social media are easy and quick to learn. Far harder to master in the virtual world, where body language and facial expression give no clue to the impact we are having on others, is a code of behaviour that encourages us to treat others as we would be treated ourselves.
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones / But words will never hurt me,’ goes the old children’s rhyme. Oh, but they do. Ask Louise Mensch.