I recently had the pleasure of attending the Girls’ Schools Association’s Annual Conference for Heads in Bristol, England. Sue Hincks, President of the GSA and Headmistress of Bolton School Girls’ Division in the UK, gave a powerful opening address where among other critical topics of the day, she addressed the pressing need for girls’ schools to teach our girls how to be discerning in today’s ever-changing, technology-dependent world. The following is an excerpt from Sue’s remarks.
Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools
How does our current manner of consuming the internet affect the health and well-being of our girls? We have this amazing tool at our disposal and yet, just as with the invention of the printing press, the steam train, or the motor car, we are blind to where it might lead and how it might have a negative as well as beneficial impact on the world in which we live. As educators, we warn our girls about the dangers of cyber bullying, cyber predators, of posting private information online, of phishing. More recently, we have begun talking to them about the dangers of sadfishing. We tell them that material is air brushed, either visually or emotionally, so that human flaws are banished. We decry the fact that many teenagers and young adults have seen on porn sites images and narratives which once would have been kept out of the public domain. But as a society we do not discuss enough the impact which this access to inappropriate material and this creation of unrealistic expectations has on young minds. The way it distorts girls’ view of their bodies, their emotional well-being, and their idea of what an adult relationship consists of. As educators who know the value of intergenerational interaction, we watch in alarm as we see families out and about where the childcare is provided by the iPad and the adults are looking at their phones rather than engaging in conversation. How many of us have spoken to parents who say that their teenage daughters go straight upstairs when they arrive home and spend the evening on social media rather than discussing the events of the day with a caring adult who might help their daughter achieve some perspective on the latest squabble and misunderstanding?
I know there are no girls’ school educators who have not had to unravel some sort of upset on Yik Yak, Wut, Popcorn Messaging, or whatever anonymous social media app is the latest in vogue among our girls. Not one of us, I think, would doubt the potentially negative impact of social media on young people’s mental health. Whether that is addiction—the dopamine hit of personal validation created by “likes” which is sought after again or again—or negative self- reflection that a young person is unpopular, unfunny, unpretty, or undateable because they haven’t received such likes, they have been ignored, or they have received anonymous negative feedback. This is not to mention the impact on sleep and sleep quality when girls have their phone in their bedroom, or, in boarding schools, have to hand in one phone, their second phone, their third phone… but still try to keep their fourth one on them at night. And, of course, FOMO. Our generation can talk about the “loveliness of missing out” but for young people, being different from the crowd is still hard for the majority to bear and can often cause anxiety, loneliness, and a sense of personal inadequacy.
In the same vein we have not properly begun to talk about the impact on the human mind of this new way of assimilating information. To question whether we are in danger of losing our ability to read and digest material slowly and in a linear fashion, to process ideas, and empathise with characters as they emerge from the page, thereby gradually absorbing what it is to be human because we can search quickly for a key word or an answer to our problems online. Once upon a time, knowledge consisted of what you yourself knew through your own eyes or in what you heard yourself, with your own ears from another source; in the tales which were passed down from generation to generation or the news which was conveyed from town to town via messengers. Then people began to write, and humankind built a mighty library of shared and stored information. There was a heyday when the literate revelled in their access to knowledge, buying up books, consuming newspapers, and writing to friends about what they had learned and thought.
And now—the internet, the mightiest library of all. Vast numbers of people have immediate access to vast quantities of information, which so far has been relatively democratic and innovative. But how is that information curated and checked? When there is so much unchannelled choice, it is like me with my TV. I can watch over fifty channels, but I fall back on the same show on the same channel as the only option where I know what I am getting. On the internet, it is possible to ignore what you don’t wish to think about or believe, to exist in an echo chamber of mutual self-congratulation and similar beliefs. You can be highly selective about what you wish to quote and edit pictures and narratives to produce the story you want, all of which leads to a reduction in the quality of public discourse.
We as teachers have to train young people to be discerning. We have to formalise the ability to ask purposeful questions that lead to greater understanding and more perspective. We must enable them to understand how they can be manipulated, not by the rhetoric of speeches or written passages, which they study already in their English language lessons, but by the medium of algorithms and automated scripts. We need to teach them that click bots, social bots, and vote bots are designed to influence public opinion by polarising views, silencing opposition, denigrating or extolling individuals, parties, and brands according to intent. They take away nuance, undermine discernment, and encourage the adoption of unreasoned opinions and attitudes. Surely, future generations will be amazed by our naiveté, lack of ethical debate, and inability or unwillingness to stem the growth of the technological giants.
Thank goodness for the girls. When I get too downhearted by what might be facing us in the near future, I think about the children in our schools. The intelligent, talented, confident, funny, excited girls we teach who are just waiting to get a grip on this world of ours and make it better. The girls who do not consent to be inferior, but who imagine their futures in so many ways, as bread-winners and care-givers, prepared to be visible in their field and to share in a communal mission.
I also think about our girls’ schools—places which are preparing young women to be entrepreneurial, technologically savvy, flexible, creative, and innovative, as well as to have integrity and a sense of responsibility for others.
Girls’ school students benefit because they do not need to mould their behaviour so that it is acceptable to the boys. They can be the cleverest, loudest, or most dominant person in the room; they can be “it,” the leader, or the queen of the castle; they can run the fastest, throw the longest distance, and win the race; they can work the drill or mix the caesium and water. Meanwhile their teachers understand the value of boosting girls’ confidence, challenging risk aversion, and encouraging them to consider the widest palate of careers without being constrained by gender stereotypes.