Sunday 26 October 2014

Online limits for children are vital

Published 04/12/2012 | 05:00

The Joint Managerial Body (JMB) which represents more than 400 second-level schools, almost two-thirds of the total, has issued new guidelines on cyber-bullying, the shocking practice that has brought such tragic results in recent times.

Other management bodies are planning to revise their guidelines on student and staff behaviour. Like the JMB, they will not confine them to online bullying but will put them in the wider behavioural context. Meanwhile, an expert group appointed by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn is working on new rules on all forms of bullying.

These initiatives are very welcome, and very necessary. Certainty about the causes of the deaths, which have had a devastating effect on families and whole communities, will have to await investigation, but in some cases online bullying certainly constituted a major factor.

In these and other instances, for example breaches of privacy such as taking pictures without permission, it is clear that the young people who broke the rules, written or unwritten, simply did not understand the power and magnitude of the medium which they literally held in their hands.

Like almost every human advance, mobile gadgets can be a force for good or bad, or both. Facebook and Twitter have become a part of the planet's life, especially the life of the young.

And, of course, the young are precisely the people least likely to understand the dangers. Cyber-bullying can and does cost lives. But there are many other risks. Pictures taken either innocently or with malice can convey misleading impressions and have severe ill-effects on teachers and other victims.

Some partial remedies are simple. Schools can set up systems of control to limit pupils' access to personal information. Staff can maximise their privacy settings. Very specifically, as in the case of the JMB guidelines, schools can instruct students that they should not take pictures of staff or other pupils unless these are required for a project.

No doubt Mr Quinn's expert group will take account of all the problems. But success will depend in part on the enlistment of a force outside the education system.

To what extent do parents regulate the time spent by their children online, or the content of the material sent or viewed? How much do they know of these activities or their potential effects? Parents, as well as teachers and pupils, must educate themselves.

Irish Independent

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