Careless comments posted online can come back to haunt everyone

Jared O'Mara
Jared O'Mara

The historical online ramblings of Jared O’Mara have been discussed around the country and several Sheffield schools have already seized upon his distasteful musings to press home an important message.

Teachers across the city have long since urged kids to take the utmost care when posting things on the Internet – Mr O’Mara’s unfortunate predicament is an example of how things posted online are frozen in time and can be thawed out years later to remind you of your past.

Irresponsible and offensive use of social media is such a serious problem in schools it cannot be overstated.

It’s a common message dished out at schools week in, week out: the first thing your potential employers will do is a Google search to see what they can find out about you. They will look on Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social media giants to get a picture of the person they intend to pay a salary.

Jared O’Mara did not heed the message, and because of his public profile and accountability, the press have rightly taken a keen interest, questioning his current character via sentences typed over a decade ago.

Irresponsible and offensive use of social media and forums is such a serious problem in secondary schools these days that it cannot really be overstated.

Teachers and welfare officers working in schools often have a large part of their day taken up by bullying and self-esteem issues linked to comments that have been written online. For some members of staff, this dominates their whole working week.

The number of working hours that these issues take up in schools across the country must be astronomical. The cost of policing inappropriate use of the Internet in schools will run into millions of pounds. These members of staff should be doing much more useful work within school to improve outcomes, but sadly the fallout from online exchanges needs dealing with.

Posting opinions on the Internet goes hand in hand with phone ownership these days and schools have a role in promoting a sensible approach.

The mobile phone policy of schools across South Yorkshire varies slightly. There are some schools that allow children to sign up to their wi-fi so that can access the Internet in lessons. On the face of it, this could be quite a powerful teaching tool. If most of the cohort has a smart phone, the teacher has a resource that can instantly be tapped into. Whether it’s carrying out research on the Internet or simply using it as a calculator, lessons can be moved forward creatively by the teacher giving permission for phones to be taken out. Other schools have a very strict “See It, Lose It” policy. Here, students are allowed to take a phone to school, but if it’s seen by a member of staff it is taken off them. Repeat offenders may have to collect it from the headteacher or have a letter sent home. And then there are schools without a clear policy, where phones are tolerated. Maybe students are not meant to have them out in the open at lunchtime, but it’s not challenged and so they can openly and freely get away with it. This is self-destructive. You’re giving people under the age of 16 a device that is a camera, voice recorder, video recorder, messenger and – most crucially – a publisher, and simply trusting them to use it sensibly. There’s a culture within the city that sees many kids get access to a smart phone when they start secondary school. It’s like a rite of passage, and for some it comes even earlier at primary school. But our children are not mature enough to be opened up to the full power of the Internet at the age of 11. Parents should be watching their online presence like a hawk and limiting phone use, supporting the policy at their school even if they feel it is Draconian.

If they don’t there is a chance that they will leave an online footprint now and in the coming years that could create a problem in their careers to come. This mobile-savvy generation is going to be plagued with such scrutiny. It’s something that will happen to more and more people growing up in the age of the smart phone. To the young people of Sheffield, I simply say: make sure it’s not you.