Last month, the PSHE Association did an unusual thing: it warned against a specific educational resource.
“A film has been launched for use in schools and the PSHE curriculum called ‘Breck’s Last Game’,” a blog post began, adding: “We have significant concerns about the educational effectiveness of this film and its likely impact on young people, and warn schools against using it.”
The film tackles grooming and tells, in an impressively impactful way, the true story of 14-year-old Breck Bednar who was befriended online by an 18-year-old but later died as a result of their troubling relationship. To the PSHE’s eyes, the desire to provide a cautious tale gave way to something that was simply upsetting.
As an association that provides accreditation to courses, the PSHE has built its reputation on promoting positive efforts. If something is not up to its quality standards, it asks for changes (privately) and then re-evaluates it. As far as we are aware, it has never publicly criticized an honest attempt to help our young people learn and grow.
But these are unusual times. The culture that has grown up around our online lives often pushes shocking or offensive content, and services like Twitter or Facebook appear to feed off and even promote outrage and upset. The video in question – which you can see here – is a professionally produced, smart and sincere effort to tackle a difficult and important subject.
However we agree with the PSHE when it warns against showing the film to young people. As powerful as it is, it is not an effective way of educating them. Fear is a powerful driver but it is a horrible teacher.
For the past decade, much of the conversation around the internet and children – particularly in political circles and the media – has focused on the negative. The dangers they face, the risks associated with seemingly every online activity, the hidden menace behind innocent interactions.
While this is to be expected – legislators react most strongly to unpleasant problems clearly stated, and nothing sells like bad news – this dark view of the internet and online experiences has started impacting education.
When we started to develop a new course to deal with the tricky topic of online sexual content, we consciously vowed to stay positive. Or, at least, not go negative. But when we analyzed the first draft, there were still numerous mentions of being “exposed” or becoming “addicted” to what remains readily available content. There was a general sense that children needed to be shielded from the internet. And if that wasn’t possible, made to understand the worst that can happen.
But that of course is why we have best practice guidelines developed over time to capture what educators have uncovered as the most effective ways to guide young people; the best ways to help them learn for themselves and made real-world decisions while feeling supported.
The PSHE Association has an excellent list of 10 of them. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has another five. In fact, there are loads of them. And that’s not even mentioning the books.
One thing is clear in all of these guides: fear does not work. And can in fact make things worse. As the PSHE notes about the Breck video, “shocking imagery, stories or videos can retraumatise pupils” and “extreme examples and images can actually delay young people from seeking help.”
While this example is particularly tragic, the same applies any time that young people experience unsettling or uncertain situations: be that healthy or unhealthy relationships; drug use; body image; online bullying; sexual content; or any range of activities that the internet has introduced or changed markedly from the previous generation’s experience.
For us, we dug into each time our course had sought to shield or warn young people about the dangers of online content and reimagined how we could help them recognise what the impact of that content was on them and how they felt, and thought, and reacted in response.
Legislators say hard cases make bad law. The same applies in education. When it comes to the internet – and especially the content that young people see sooner and more frequently than we ever did – we need to teach them how to make sense of it. To parse the greys. And when they do, if they do come up against extreme examples, they will know what to do.
Note it. Report it. Turn it off. But don’t focus on it.