Last week The Economist ran an article under the heading ‘The Youth of Today’. The byline read:
‘Young people in rich countries are better behaved and less hedonistic than in the past, but also more isolated’.
It brought to mind a Courier article I wrote last year in which I referred to a quote from Aristotle:
‘What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?’
It seems that over the last month every newspaper has run with a headline decrying social media and the reckless hedonism of teenagers who waste their time, their health and their opportunities on screens. Furthermore, the Children’s Commissioner for England has called on Parents and Schools to ban Snapchat because it is designed to harm the vulnerable. Naturally I do share some of the concerns having had to deal with some very unsettling incidents in which social media has been misused at school. However, we do need to be careful. Demonising and banning has limits and in many ways can be counter-productive. I chatted to the students in the Mental Health Society and they were adamant: 99% of all students use Snapchat and other social media forums properly and respectfully so why would the school design itself around the behaviour of a tiny minority. Education has to be at the heart of what we do and whilst I agree that boundaries are important the overall message – focus on behaviour and not technology – cannot be lost. More importantly, the statistics bear this out. The Economist reported that in 2018:
• Teenagers start drinking later ‘and even when they start, they sip rather than chug’
• 1/5 of all 16-24 year olds in the UK do not drink
• The proportion of 15/16 year olds who have tried cigarettes has fallen year on year since 1999
• There is a rising proportion of teenagers who have never tried a mind altering substance
• Fighting between teenagers has fallen
• Juvenile crime and anti-social behaviour has fallen in England and Wales
• Teenagers have less sex
It is important for adults to not judge and to not demonise without true basis or fact. There is no doubt that excessive use of social media can negatively affect mental health (and lead to the problems of isolation referred to in The Economist article) but perhaps a bigger issue is the number of teenagers skipping breakfast: recent studies point to the fact that poor diet and poor routine has a bigger causal link with mental health than screen use does. Therefore, our conversations at school need to be balanced; they need to focus on building a community which embraces and welcomes everyone and does not demonise the behaviour of the majority who are more responsible and more mature than previous generations have been.
Ed Burnett, Deputy Head