You will have seen in the news this week the story of Molly Russell, the14-year-old who took her own life after viewing graphic images of self-harm on social media, and the comment from Molly’s father, who said that Instagram had “helped kill” his daughter. Molly’s story is a sobering reminder that, while we are all to some extent affected by increased screen time and the distractions of social media, vulnerable children and young adults are particularly susceptible to what the BBC’s Angus Crawford called the ‘monetising of misery’.
In Monday’s assembly, ahead of Safer Internet Day, Dan Harding (U6, Bn) and Esther Ujah (U6, Hg) delivered a simple and powerful message. Referring to the story of Molly Russell, Esther and Dan encouraged us to recognise the crucial role we play in the safeguarding and wellbeing of others. What Molly Russell’s story reminds us is that social media has the power to draw an individual into an entirely separate space: a virtual labyrinth through which the individual often leaves no clues, and which disorientates and disconnects them, leaving them with no way back.
At Wellington, we constantly review our approach to social media. So pervasive is its power, in all our lives, that denial and zero-tolerance is not an option. As children’s mental health campaigner, Natasha Devon, wrote in an article for the Tes this week: ‘Let’s face it, social media isn’t going anywhere’. Our aim, therefore, is to find a balance between regulation and education.
Our role is to educate students to be safe online, to take responsibility for their actions, and to act with respect, both for themselves and for others. We do this through House tutorials, through year-group assemblies, through the Wellbeing curriculum, and through external partnerships with specialist agencies like Digital Awareness UK. On Friday, it was the turn of Fourth Form students to be involved in e-safety workshops, with sessions exploring a range of issues, from device management, to body shaming, non-consensual sexting, and the glorification of eating disorders and self-harm. However, education alone is not enough to stop a student like Molly Russell being drawn in.
As Esther made clear in her address, we are a close community – a community that provides a source of safety and support but one that, in return, confers on us a responsibility. As individuals, we have our patterns and routines; as friends, we become accustomed to certain habits and quirks in others and, while we may find them unusual or even annoying at times, these habits and quirks are important, not least because they help us to identify when things change.
We talk a lot about change, about how we need to be able to withstand change, to be resilient, to be adaptable. But, where personalities, idiosyncrasies and routines are concerned, a change can be an indication that something is not quite right.
To mark Safer Internet Day on Tuesday, Heads of College, Scarlett and Dan, sent an email asking us to detach ourselves from our mobile phones for the day. The email contained a link to this BBC video about Molly Russell and carried another reminder that we have a duty and a responsibility to look out for one another:
‘As we said in assembly, would you recognise if one of your friends was struggling with their mental health due to social media?’
I hope that everyone has paused at some point this week to reflect on the role they can and must play in looking out for others. Friendship, kindness, care, and compassion – these are the things that can help us navigate the labyrinth of social media. In a large but close-knit community such as Wellington, noticing a change, however small and insignificant it may seem and having the courage to question, could be enough to draw someone back. These are the things that could make the difference, the things that could provide the golden thread.
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