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Article by Helen Aguiar featured in The West Australian on Wednesday 24 May 2023

Online videos depicting school-aged students fighting are a symptom of a deeper crisis facing our young people.

We need to talk about an antidote to this threat to our adolescents’ mental health.

If we as a community don’t take responsibility for creating an environment in which it is possible for our teenagers to have meaning or purpose, it’s a stretch for us to wonder why some lack empathy, kindness and understanding.

The upside of social media platforms — that they create an avenue for sharing wisdom, information and creating connection — has been badly undermined by these so-called online fight clubs.

Anti-social elements or social media trolls encouraging young people who are seeking peer approval to take offence, combined with live streaming, play an unhealthy role in verbal and physical aggression on and offline.

In his Sunday Times feature, High School Horror Shows Live Streamed, reporter Caleb Runciman says: “Experts warn unless cultural change is enacted to stop children revelling in the misery of others, these online fight clubs will continue.”

There is some evidence to suggest that creating an environment in which teenagers no longer communicate face-to-face is making it harder for them to be honest about how they feel, develop empathy and resolve conflict.

US child mental health not-for-profit Child Mind implicates smartphones, with their 24/7 access to social media platforms, for feeding anxiety, lowering self esteem, contributing to poor body image and loneliness.

Child Mind clinical psychologists Dr Catherine Steiner-Adair and Dr Donna Wick say this generation of teenagers communicate most with a screen, not other people, and this deprives them of the opportunity to develop skills to maintain friendships, to be courageous and listen carefully to what others have to say.

The other downside of indirect communication is that it has become easier to be cruel. Young people text things they would not contemplate saying to someone’s face.

“You hope to teach them that they can disagree without jeopardising the relationship,” Dr Wick says. “But what social media is teaching them, is to disagree in ways that are more extreme and do jeopardise the relationship.”

Telethon Kids Institute cyber safety research found many young people subjected to cyberbullying may avoid telling their parents because they do not want to lose access to the internet or mobile devices.

The eSafety Commission has some excellent resources for schools, parents, young people and parents dealing with fight videos. It points out that sharing these clips can escalate violence. Sharing humiliates and creates trauma for those filmed, with lasting consequences for their emotional and mental wellbeing.

The eSafety Commission also has advice for young people about what to do when someone is creating drama online.

At Perth College, our InsideOut program embraces the work of positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman. We believe that where members of our community find meaning and purpose they are more likely to experience positive emotion, engagement, forge constructive relationships and take pleasure in their achievements.

We believe we find meaning in helping others; contributing to an important cause or organisation; using our strengths to help others; and spending quality time with people we care about.

Personally I wonder whether within schools, if we spent less time worrying about NAPLAN and ATAR results and more time making a positive contribution to improving the lives of others, whether we might not only slowly start to change our culture but might also find our results take care of themselves.

When I speak to our students, I’m struck by their strong sense of justice and I’m encouraged by their desire to tackle difficulties with courage.

If as a community we took responsibility for nurturing and building on that desire to help make the world a better place, allowing our young people to experience more of the joy that comes from helping others, I’m confident we can turn the fight club culture on its head.

Helen Aguiar is the principal of Perth College, an Anglican school for girls in Mount Lawley.