There can be little doubt that the internet and social networking are transforming our lives individually and collectively. As individuals there are opportunities to decide and revise our “identities”, and socially we are all potentially globally-connected. It will be for future historians to assess what effects this is having, how profound and how lasting they are. But already there are pressing issues for western democracy and elections. There are questions about personal privacy and what is shared with third parties of various kinds. There are rising concerns about harassment and bullying on social media. And as I write this, there is a growing fear that social media combined with YouTube are fuelling gun and knife crime among children and young people in London.
Against this backdrop I would like to consider a single matter: the impact of social media on the education and learning of children and young people. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland he saw himself as an arch-moderniser, and one of his many pronouncements was that every class in every primary and junior school would have computers. At the time it was seen generally as a good thing just as the replacement of slates by exercise books, and blackboards by interactive white boards had been in bygone eras. But already some deep questions are being raised. And it is both interesting and very significant to note that in the vanguard of those posing the questions are some of the very people who know most about social networking.
On 10th February 2018 The Times carried as piece about Tech-free schools. And the message was that digital pioneers, including Alan Eagle, Director of Communications at Google, a chief technology officer at eBay, and senior executives at Apple and Yahoo, were all concerned about the effect social networking on children’s brains. Sean Parker, an early investor in Facebook, admitted that they had made it as addictive as possible. He is then reported as saying: “God only know what it’s doing to our children’s brains”. Tim Cook, Chief Executive of Apple, said he did not want his nephew (who is coming up for 12 years old) to use social media.
It seems that many of this breed living in Silicon Valley are choosing to send their children to Waldorf Schools based on the educational philosophy of Rudolph Steiner. As a matter of principle, these places of learning do not use electronic media. Instead they value physical experiences and tasks, the use of imagination, problem-solving (rather than consulting Google for an answer), and collaborative skills.
Now it would be easy to see this contrast in black and white, binary terms, and to identify with a nostalgic view of the past. This is not how I see it. All technological innovation offers both new opportunities, and also new challenges and problems. One aspect of the challenge is always how to use them appropriately. And one of the very practical problems is the universality of social media: across all cultures, classes and ages. Take just the variable of age: what if one needs adult experience and maturity before one can use them responsibly and properly?
I go with Sean Parker in wondering what Facebook and the like are doing to children’s brains. I fear that they are undermining basic skills and qualities such as concentration, problem-solving, critical thinking and analysis, delayed gratification, hand-eye coordination, imagination, reading and purposeful or playful physical exercise.
I am informed by the cognoscenti that the future of computing lies with quantum theory. This will replace the Boolean binary system that has been with us from the birth of computers. It is not about speed and capacity, so much as the subtlety of thinking and calculation. And this gives me cause for hope, because it may well be that human beings will need to be smarter in their interactions with computers. We shall see. But meanwhile households, schools and therapeutic communities would do well to think carefully about the boundaries that need to be constructed and placed around access to social networks. If a child is bombarded with advertising aimed at distracting her from the task in hand, and is reduced to pressing a button indicating “Like” or “Dislike”, with no guiding frameworks of the sort offered by geography, history, religion, philosophy, literature, grammar, mathematics, physics and the like, then I cannot see how she is learning to think and act appropriately.
This is a very practical and pressing challenge for a residential community such as Mill Grove. We are not (for the most part) a formal place of education, but our philosophy is that it is in everyday life, relationships, patterns, rituals, seasons and activities that learning is always taking place. So let me share with you the simple rules that we have devised as a family at Mill Grove when we go on holiday to North Wales. (This period of vacation is packed with exploration and learning of every kind. In fact it is a pity that it gets interrupted every year by the need to return to schools and colleges!) Smart phones and computers are banned from communal living space, from meals, and from times spent together on beaches, seas, lakes, rivers and mountains. Instead we talk face to face, we make our own music with guitars, recorders and singing, we make our fires for cooking, use the wind for sailing, and paddles for kayaking, learn together to scramble, make dens together, use art, poetry and prose to record what we do in diaries and scrapbooks. It’s a conscious shared way of life, and it seems to me to be self-evidently superior to one in which people are glued to little screens connecting us with others and the world by means of electronic imaging.
This does not mean that we have turned our back on the benefits of digital communication and storage. We are grateful for weather forecasts and global information, and these inform us in our shared living and activities. So it is not a Luddite approach to technological advances, nor is it a way of harking back to a golden era in the past. But it does require discipline and shared values and ownership of this way of life.
Perhaps a way of introducing these challenges and dilemmas to young people is to ask them to consider what they would want for their own children. And it is this very question that seems to have been the deciding factor with the leaders of electronic technology: not how can I make money, or how can information be shared most speedily: but what would be best for my children?
Historians will be able to tell future generations whether ours had the courage and determination to follow where this simple question leads. Societies as a whole are rarely able to make informed, conscious radical choices, but households and communities can. Is there a role here for therapeutic communities existing to help children and young people might take a lead in this? Waldorf Schools are among those that have begun the process. Who is ready to join them?