Yesterday I was thinking how my online presence has changed over the last seven years since I launched "Ranting Teacher". What I didn't consider was how the changes (advances?) in technology have affected the life of your average teen these days. But having just watched this week's new episode of "South Park", where one of the characters gets sucked into Facebook, it reminded me of school life once again, because although it may be satire, what happened in this episode is actually very insightful.
For example, every member of my form group has got either an iPhone or an iPod Touch. I can't blame them for wanting to compare apps at the first opportunity, even though they aren't supposed to have their gadgets on show in school, lest I swoop in and wrestle their headphones from their very persons.
Texting mates in lessons (or even better for their phone credit - bluetoothing) is a matter of course these days. I used to dread what was happening when students looked to be fiddling with something under the desk, but these days it's with tiresome predictability that there's a mobile phone involved. If you're a teacher, just test this yourself: during any one lesson, furtively switch on your bluetooth and see how many (usually rude) names spring to life on your screen. With one persistant offender I decided to get through the only way I could. I wrote a note on a piece of paper my desk: "Get on with your work!". I photographed it and bluetoothed it to the dozy student, who foolishly accepted whatever file was being sent to him. Ok, we had a little laugh about it, but it did the trick.
But Facebook seems to be a huge pressure on teens. "South Park" wasn't exaggerating. The unlikeliest of students are "Facebook friends" and these alliances are seen around school too, for example when one student shouts something to another about their status updates or photos, and they have never talked to each other in your class before. That it's used for bullying, there is no doubt. That it's more important to be "Facebook friends" with the right people than to have the right trainers these days is becoming more apparent. A great equaliser? Not really. It's very divisive. Several fights broke out at school last term because of what somebody had posted on Facebook, with two opposing factions grouping because of their Facebook links.
Even stranger is that some of my colleagues have easily discovered Facebook profiles, with pictures of their personal lives plastered all over them. So? you might argue, teachers should be entitled to use Facebook as well as any other breed of human. But what disturbs me is that some of these teachers are "friends" with current students. There seems to be a professional line that has been crossed there. And when I hear from these staff some of the school gossip they have discovered because it was posted on a pupil's "Wall", I do wonder if I'm being over-sensitive about this, or whether it's excusable. After all, I'm often party to conversations between students that I'd really rather not hear. It doesn't just happen online - there's real life too of course! But online, things seem to escalate. An offhand comment by somebody can be jumped upon, undefended, and circulated widely before the poster has had the chance to rethink.
My point is, that teenagers today are under pressures that weren't even imaginable when I was a teenager myself. Sometimes I wonder how different my teen years would have been with the internet and a mobile phone, and I always imagine it to have been vastly superior. Far better to woo a member of the opposite sex with a flirty text message or a "poke" on Facebook than to stand in a drafty phone box and hope the object of one's desires' mother didn't answer the phone instead.
But the other side to this is the added layers of social networking which can increase anxiety and turmoil in a teen's life. So something else to consider next time you hear somebody sneer, "What, you're not even on MSN? Won't mummy let you?" or banter about "Facebook friends".