This week my students and I had really interesting discussions about the role of social media (and the internet in general) in providing platforms for those individuals who wish to ‘cancel’ others. We discussed what the term meant and whether it was in fact nothing more than a ‘new’ way to enforce ‘political correctness’. We came to the conclusion that ‘cancel culture’ is a far more insidious way of punishing people for their mistakes than how people were punished in the past.

My students, being the digital natives that they are, were able to give me a multitude of examples of famous people (and some not-so-famous) who have been ‘cancelled’ in recent years – not necessarily for a mistake they made today or yesterday – but for something they may have said up to ten years ago when they were younger and more naïve.

We discussed how the internet, specifically its use by social media platforms, is very powerful, and how the urge some people have to ‘cancel’ others is facilitated only too well by its very open nature. Anyone anywhere can post their opinion online about another person’s mistakes – be it something they said/did/thought/were involved in. Such posts cause huge upset and heartache – especially if they relate to a mistake made many years ago. Such ‘cancelling’ can lead to the ruin of that person’s career, relationship, future.

Online Worlds Illustration
By Manypixels Gallery

The question is, what do we, as educators do to equip our students to see this ‘cancelling’ for what it is? Namely, a deliberate attempt by someone, rightly or wrongly, to punish another, usually via social media. What tools will students need to have to avoid becoming embroiled in such viral, and often malicious, activity?

The simple answer is digital literacy – but not merely that – they also need to be critically aware of the major issues affecting our society. Students need to understand whether it is worth their mental and emotional energy to engage with those social media users whose sole purpose – or so it would appear – is to cause problems and create drama. They also need to know the consequences of their actions should they choose to interact.

Are students aware of the measures social media platforms have in place to prevent the sharing of content which is untrue or likely to incite unrest or is hateful, etc.? Are students aware that there could be legal consequences if they were to engage in such behaviour personally? I know some schools have invited guest speakers in to spread awareness of how to ‘be safe online’, but I think the time is opportune to invite in speakers to deal with student digital wellbeing and resilience, as well as knowing about online safety. After all, if a student’s wellbeing is being affected by their use of social media, it follows that their education will also be impacted.

Students know what ‘cancel culture’ is, some have perhaps even participated in it or been subjected to it. We need to ensure that the consequences of engaging in such online shaming are made clear to them – the pain, the anxiety, the job loss, the depression, the sense of failure, etc…..only then can we hope to avoid the online ‘pile-ons’ that occur, and surely that is in all our interests!

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