Why everyone must be wary of social media

Michael Lambert explains how thoughtless and ill-considered use of the media is affecting lives of teenagers

Teenage girls and boys share their exploits online all the time that are often archived on the servers of those social media companies.
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When I began to interview for teaching positions more than 10 years ago, I got some advice from an experienced headmaster: “Ask the school whether there is smoking, drinking and bullying in their institution.”

If any senior leader in that school told me that there was no such problem, then I was advised to turn down the position, however prestigious the institution and tempting the package. Why, you may ask.

Any leader in any secondary school who tells you that no illicit activities take place in their institution is either detached from the realities of teenagers’ lives or desperate to project an unrealistic image of their school for marketing. “And therein lies the danger for the children and parents,” he said.

The best institutions, I was told, would accept that there is bullying and risky behaviour among pupils and that any school that had a tried and tested approach to handle these situations would ensure that everyone’s safety and dignity are preserved. I have followed his advice since.

Fast forward to now, and secondary schools not only face the same problems but they do so in different dimensions. Teenage girls and boys share their exploits online all the time and these moments are often archived on the servers of those social media companies.

This month Harvard Crimson, the students' daily newspaper of Harvard University, revealed that the university had rescinded offers for at least 10 students after they “traded sexually explicit memes and messages that sometimes targeted minority groups in a private Facebook group chat”.

There is no such thing as a private online group chat.

As soon as one posts something on social media, it is out there to be shared or archived.

Punishments for such misdemeanours have been outlined in the UAE's Cyber Crime Law. For example, someone who establishes, manages or runs an inappropriate website or transmits, publishes or re-publishes through the computer network pornographic or gambling materials could face imprisonment or a fine not less than Dh250,000 – or a maximum of Dh500,000 – or both.

Article 21 states that any online invasion of privacy is punishable by at least six months' imprisonment and a minimum fine of Dh150,000 – and not in excess of Dh500,000 – or either of these two. This invasion of privacy includes: eavesdropping, intercepting, recording, transferring, transmitting or disclosing conversations or communications, or audio or visual materials; photographing others or creating, transferring, disclosing, copying or saving electronic photos; and publishing news, electronic photos, scenes, comments, statements or information even if true and correct.

Furthermore someone could face imprisonment for at least a year and fine of a minimum Dh250,000 – but not more than Dh500,000 – or either for using an electronic information system to amend or process a record, photo or scene for the purpose of defaming or offending another person or for invading his privacy.

Gregg Davies, the headmaster of the UK's Shiplake College, seems to have taken inspiration from these clauses.

He banned mobile phones in school between 8.15am and 5.45pm, imposing a detention on anyone breaking the rule. The rationale behind this move was that students had become increasingly antisocial.

Mr Davies remarked: “Connectivity was getting in the way of communicating in real life, and pupils were losing the ability to engage in social dialogue.”

Initially I was perplexed and ambivalent about Mr Davies’s position. Surely, I thought, as educators it was our duty to assess, absorb and find an appropriate solution to the social media epidemic.

However, it is clear that parents, students and teachers need to come together to address this issue. That's because thoughtless and ill-considered use of the media is affecting lives. Not only are many students holding offers at Harvard being denied places on account of antisocial behaviour, but worse, some are dying.

Sam Abel, 14, a student at Tudor Grange in the UK, took his life after being bullied on social media. His father, Mark Abel, who competed in the Invictus Games last year, said: “Snapchat messages only last seconds, but when you’re getting those messages constantly, the seconds add up and they broke him down in the end.” An inquest was told that pupils had mocked him for his intelligence and love of cycling.

Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, said that an obsession with technology could cause people to lose their humanity and think like computers, cited threats to security and privacy, fake news and “social media that becomes antisocial” and warned that the internet could be “a place where basic rules of decency were suspended and pettiness and negativity thrive”. We need to take the warning seriously.

Today’s problems become yesterday’s problems, but when smoking, drinking and bullying no longer fade away and instead become an inescapable archive of one’s teenage development, it is wise for parents and children to deal with this matter together.

Michael Lambert is headmaster of Dubai College