Saturday 17 August 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'We need to start saying 'No' to children or the smartphone generation will be lost forever'

Students are the victims of a new wave of disorders, and all are self-inflicted. Colm O'Rourke says the problems lie close to home

Addicted: They plead that they ‘need’ their phone. I tell them they ‘want’ their phone. Stock picture
Addicted: They plead that they ‘need’ their phone. I tell them they ‘want’ their phone. Stock picture
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

This year, for me, marks 40 years of being involved in education as a teacher, deputy principal and, for the past 12 years, as principal of a secondary school with over 900 students.

The changes that have taken place are phenomenal and, in the main, for the good. Some of those changes have come slowly, but what has happened in the past five years in terms of mental wellbeing has hit everyone in this sector.

Conflicting evidence and reports relating to young people seem to indicate an increase in stress, anxiety and sleep disorders, with a growing percentage of more serious issues such as clinical depression. That is a completely different issue than what I am able to comment on.

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For those involved in education, we often debate whether the problems were always there but never diagnosed, or whether modern society has spawned a new type of health issue. Perhaps there is a bit of both. There are those of a certain generation who argue that they did not have time for these modern disorders. However, we all remember those who were a bit odd at school and who nobody ever passed any remarks on; older people who "took to the bed"; and the extreme cases of those locked away for little reason.

For me, now, there is the smartphone generation who are the victims of a new wave of disorders, all of which are self-inflicted.

If a phone is confiscated in school (it is supposed to be locked away from beginning of the day until after school), the penalty is that it is kept in the safe for a week. The reaction is like having their arm cut off. The weeping and gnashing of teeth is a sight to behold.

It is also an opportunity to teach a young man the difference between two words in the English language: need and want.

They plead that they "need" their phone. I tell them they "want" their phone. Two completely different things.

Worse still is the number of parents who back them up, something I will return to later.

As for asking them to show what is on the phone if they are using it inappropriately in class, well that is a time when fear engulfs them.

Of course there are issues of privacy, which must be respected here, too.

Some of what is going on would frighten most parents. Some are tech savvy and have an open relationship with their children, but young people are miles ahead in terms of social media, so a lot of adults are running flat out just to stay 10 miles behind. Recent increases in problems relate to sexting and pornography. Parents are shocked by this. So was I for a few minutes. Now it is common, and parents have little idea of the amount of porn that young people access. It is not the top-shelf variety of the past. The knock-on effect is a huge increase in under-age sexual activity.

I would think - I know - there are a lot of sexually active 14-year-olds now; in school, you hear these things, and it is not just bravado. They happen outside school, and very often the relationships are just casual and for one specific purpose. A school's job isn't to be the moral guardian on a 24-7 basis.

Gambling has also become another big issue, which is directly related to easy availability. There is the old-style betting on horses and football matches, but the new type is online gaming. This can take place between people in different parts of the country or even people in other parts of the world. This is often a late-night activity which exaggerates sleep issues, often leading to tired, listless students at school. Or worse still, a growing number who don't come to school at all for this and other reasons. Not only that, but the dark web, a place inhabited by all types of weirdos, can blow the minds of impressionable young students.

So a lot of young people live now in an artificial world, one where sex, gambling, violence, alcohol and drug abuse are normalised. One where friends are those who they communicate with through text, Snapchat, Instagram or whatever is the latest platform. One where a 'like' for a post is incredibly important for their social status. 'Friends' do not necessarily mean people you meet and have a chat with face to face, they exist out there in the ether.

This is not a declaration of war on smartphones or social media. Their value is enormous and Mr Google gives me a lot of help when looking up things for writing and research purposes. Yet, as a society, why do we tolerate people abusing each other online? Why are the big multinationals not held to account for this abuse, which passes as free speech? Why is so much inappropriate material available to young people? The arm of Government which should regulate this sort of thing seems to be more concerned with employment and foreign direct investment instead of doing the right thing. Some of these companies need multimillion-euro fines to ensure they tidy up their act. It can be sorted. They won't do it voluntarily. Traffic on sites is more important to them than retention of basic social values.

Parents also come into the equation. They biggest problem with them at the moment is that they never seem to use the word "No" when it comes to their children. Of course it is a small minority, but a rapidly growing minority all the same. It is up to everyone else to sort out many of their problems and schools take up a big share of that burden. Parents could start with checking phones and taking them off their children at night - but I'm amazed at the amount of parents who come into school demanding a phone back when it is confiscated. That is really worrying.

When relationships break down, we as educators are well placed to see the results of those breakdowns in young people. Those students tend to have more issues as it is - throw in the time bomb of unfettered access to the internet and there is a lethal cocktail. But it is not only they who are at risk. Proper values in terms of respect, relationships and tolerance are much harder to inculcate when there is a different message of instant gratification at the end of a phone.

Now, the vast majority of young people still turn out to be model citizens and maybe they are better able to filter and adapt than my concerns justify. Those who are involved in sport or other social activities lead healthy lifestyles and show concern for others. Young people can be funny, engaging, loyal, mature and have noble ideals. Yet if you turn the clock forward 20 years, there has to be serious concerns over how those who are exposed to everything in early teen years will be able to hold down good jobs, and, more importantly, embark on long-term stable relationships. Or will everything just be temporary? Look up something new on the phone.

What we are dealing with now in schools is the effect. Sooner rather than later we need to tackle the cause. That is for a higher authority than an individual school. Full-time counsellors are snowed under in the education system and outside agencies who deal with these things are not up to speed - either in prompt response for appointments or having the same relationship as a teacher can have with a student. So unless the free access to so much damage online is curtailed and parents start saying 'No', then the fallout will be even greater when schools reopen in September.

It is not something to look forward to.

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