Students’ good judgment has yet to catch up with their cyber-use

By 
  • February 13, 2013

As a young teacher two decades ago I attended a conference where a packed room of educators was told that during our careers we would witness learning environments in which students would employ personal communication devices. It sounded like something out of Star Trek, as probable as warp drive.

When the first wave of personal communication devices came out, I was teaching in a Catholic high school in Toronto. During Grade 11 English class, a boy’s pager went beep-beep-beep. He asked to leave class to make a call.

Later in the staff room, conversations were filled with speculation that a teenager who needed a pager must be involved in something illegal. Back then, only doctors, priests and real estate agents had pagers. We were prejudicial, naïve and short-sighted about how communication technology was beginning to change the way students connected with each other.

Our Christian anthropology has long taught that as human persons we are flesh and we are social. We seek communion with others. Whether that other is divine mystery, the natural world or our neighbour, we each possess a deep need for intimacy and belonging.

Given our fundamental need for communion, the phenomenon of social networking seems to explore and exploit what is deep in our bones. We crave connection but for nearly all of human history most communities have required us to be physically present with each other to do so. Not so in this new virtual world.

Now everyone from the Holy Father to your babysitter has a Twitter account. But, like parenting, there is no formal training or accreditation required to qualify one to participate. For some young people, it seems that their need to connect has not yet caught up with their ability to exercise good judgment, good will or civility.

The plague of cyber-bullying coupled with highly publicized incidents of self-harm by victims has led to a loud and on-going debate about social networks like Facebook and Twitter. There seems to be something discordant about mass instantaneous communication that is inherently disembodied.

A few years ago Patrick Ness published a young adult novel called The Knife of Never Letting Go. The fictional world of the novel is a dystopia of cacophonous noise where the characters can hear each other’s thoughts — all the time. There is no privacy, no silence, no peace. There are no boundaries for what kind of personal information is projected out into the world and what is received.

In so many ways, this could also be an accurate description of Facebook and Twitter.
In our high schools, we are increasingly in conversation with young people who have texted, posted, pasted or tweeted something that someone else has found alarming or disquieting. When presented with an inappropriate tweet, for example, a student’s first response usually sounds something like this: “But, sir, why are you creeping (invading) my Twitter account?”

From the Twitter user’s perspective, their tweets are part of a private conversation.

Here is the problem: Tweets are not private conversations; they are broadcasts. Anyone who wants to find out what their son, daughter, student, grandchild or potential employee is saying in cyber-world can find out simply by keying a name with the word Twitter into a search engine.

Social networking is a tsunami of digitized communication that taps the deep well of human yearning for communion. Young people, in particular, are victimized by its allure: messages are delivered immediately, often in the full blush of emotional outbursts, outside of flesh and blood encounters.

In our schools the following truth is being shared in one face to face conversation at a time: We can control only the messages we send; we cannot control how they are received by others.

Educators are now having these conversations with students. Informed parents are speaking with their children and monitoring their Twitter accounts. Twitter might prove to be a useful tool for communication, but can it ever replace our deep-rooted need for flesh-and-blood, face-to-face communion? While it is true that there are t-shirts that ask “What would Jesus Tweet?” there is little in His ministry to suggest that He would have — even if He could have.

(Olson is a vice principal at Bishop Macdonell Catholic High School in Guelph, Ont.)

 

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