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Cyber traps for young players


Last week’s incident involving the use of Skype to demean a young female trainee at the Australian Defence Force Academy once again highlights the potential for inappropriate use of the internet to destroy young people’s positive sense of self. A few weeks earlier, Australian soldiers serving in Afghanistan were severely embarrassed, and even put in danger, by the unthinking and racist comments of a few posted on Facebook for all the world to see.

At the same time such sites as Facebook, and the Internet in general, have enormous power for good. Closed and oppressive systems fear them. The movement for human rights and democracy that has swept across Egypt and other places in the Middle East depended on the social networks and mobile phones to communicate, protest and to build resistance. 

But patterns of behaviour associated with internet use have thrown up new and important concerns not just for defence force chiefs, but for school teachers and parents as well. Sexting and the videoing of fights on mobile phones between students are increasingly commonplace. Schools struggle to keep up with what may be happening, let alone in responding effectively to incidents that affect the welfare of their students. 

A recent article in the Fairfax press quoted Rosemarie Costi, the school captain at Monte Sant’Angelo, North Sydney. She said ‘It is really easy to misrepresent yourself [online] when you are trying to look cool.’ 

There are increasing concerns, also, about how social networking sites create new opportunities for bullying and demeaning others, and how this can magnify the impact of bullying on victims. 

In reflecting on such threats it is important to put forward what is at stake. Reputations, of individuals and of schools, can be put at risk by what is carelessly or maliciously put out. Perhaps the most invidious aspect can be the breach of trust that can occur – between friends and peers, within a Year level, or between staff and students. So much of what school is about centres on relationships, and an environment of trust and security is integral to this. 

It is not always that such consequences stem from deliberate choices. We need to realise that there is a tendency in forums and chat rooms etc (as with emails, and with adults as much as with young people) to write with less care about the impact on others than we would in any face to face encounter. 

The whole format of these new forms of communication can coarsen our sensitivity towards the feelings and rights of others. Often a student is genuinely surprised when such an impact is pointed out. The cumulative impact of unthinking comments or misplaced humour, carried into the victim’s home by the computer, and in ways where so many others can see, is an attack on a person’s privacy and sense of self that can’t be underestimated. 

Words written in haste and without thought cannot easily be retracted. It is also very easy to fall back on an unthinking use of language in a medium where communication is immediate, spontaneous and where rules of language (from spelling to swearing) don’t apply.

Inappropriately sexist and homophobic references are too easily made. Anti-Semitic comments can be made without much thought, or without s realisation of the appalling legacy that such attitudes carry. All this goes to make the net a potent weapon that most are not even aware that they are wielding. 

As in many areas of modern life, then, the internet has elements of light and shadow mixed in it. We need to reflect continuously on what is happening in our information age and learn to discern what our response should be. It is not necessarily the case that there are clearly good guys and bad guys, but there are a multitude of voices out there that can almost overwhelm. 

It is important for parents, teenagers and schools to carry on a dialogue on the use of the net and the role of chat rooms and social networking sites, on the location of computers and the hours spent in front of computers. 

We should do so with a respect for the importance that these new media have for young people for they relate to one of our most precious and basic needs – our ability to communicate with others. Such reflection should also lead us to acknowledge the importance of providing an educational program for our young that encourages in them an awareness of our culture, a questioning of all information, the ability to critique forms of communication, and a values system to bring to this information age.

Chris MiddletonFr Chris Middleton SJ is the Principal of St Aloysius College, Milson's Point, in Sydney. This article is an edited extract from his comment in a recent edition of the college's newsletter.

Topic tags: Chris Middleton, social media, facebook, skype, relationships, schools, Skype, sexism, homophobia



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Existing comments

Dear Father Chris,

It is not the internet that "can damage young people's sense of self". It is the people that use the internet that can damage young people's sense of self. Food for thought!?

John Morgan | 12 April 2011  

I find this article a true educator's response to a the social phenomenon thet the internet has brought to our lives.Fr Middleton's emphasis on the positive, civilised behaviour which all teachers strive to pass pn to their pupils. Thank you for lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness.

Ray O'Donoghue | 12 April 2011  

Hi John, I notice that Fr Chris stated that it was *inappropriate use* of the internet that could damage others ... the word use infers people are using the net. Fr Chris has also pointed out the positives on the net.
Great article.

MBG | 12 April 2011  

In the dictionary all words have black and white meanings, with all the nuances therein contained.

Without the primary colours, black and white could not produce nuances - and vice versa. Thus, light and shadow matters.

Education is therefore paramount, so that our youngsters have the chance to learn about nuances.

Then the bullies among us may, just may, begin to value a conversation. Otherwise the racists, the sexists and the ageists may need to be reminded of contemplation and participation.

Here I need to mention all those 'Irish' jokes still doing the rounds. An educated friend of mine emailed me (ha-ha) around St. Patrick's day, one of those droll 'Irish' jokes. These jokes were not made by the Irish but by those who are resentful of the Irish. And that has got to stop. Fuelling hatred is unproductive.

I'm only Irish through marriage, so I can make this criticism with a fair dose of objectivity I think.

Joyce | 12 April 2011  

Thank you Chris for one of the clearest cautions on the use of Facebook etc. that I have read:confirms my own beliefs.
The home is surely the most powerful influence on the development of attitudes of concern, careing, honesty, 'love of neighbour', justice etc.. Doesn't matter if the home has a Christian, Hindu, Atheist, Moslem, Calathumpian or whatever culture, if these attitudes and are backed by a school philosophy genuinely supportive of and not tainted by a sub-culture of materialism the fortunate child should be able to resist the less charitable attractions of the internet. Good luck to us idealists.

Adrian | 12 April 2011  

Adrian - You've said it well. And since, like Oscar Wilde, 'I can resist anything but temptation' - I just have to share with you an observation of an acquaintance of mine: 'bringing up teenagers is like gluing jelly to trees.' So sorry you teenage lot, but you're making a parent's life so difficult, more often than not.

Joyce | 12 April 2011  

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