For those of us who found school to be a less than jolly experience, Channel 4's series Educating Yorkshire on British television has sometimes made for painful viewing. The cameras followed the children and teachers at Thornhill Community Academy near Dewsbury for seven weeks last year, and last week the second of four episodes was screened. "Groups, cliques, tribes," said the blurb; "call them what you like, they have always been at the centre of school life."
Thursday's episode focused on two groups: the cool girls and the geeks. The cool girls admitted they "tease" the geeks and call them names. The geeks said they didn't know what they had done to deserve such abuse. So far, so typical of school life, and, apparently, of exploitative reality television.
The programme focused on two incidents in which a "geek", Jac-Henry, lashed out physically after being "teased" by a girl called Georgia. The programme is fascinating in the way it challenges viewers' ideas of victim and villain - as it should, since, at age 15 or 16, nobody is a villain. Jac-Henry used violence, and accepted his punishment from the head teacher Mr Mitchell. On the first occasion, Georgia was not punished.
At least, not by the school. On Twitter on Thursday night, viewers decided to do the job. "That Georgia" started trending, with hundreds of adults using her full name to abuse her looks, her character and more. A Twitter account that appeared to be Georgia's returned insults, blocked a few accounts and eventually, showing more wisdom than her tormentors, asked what they thought they were doing calling her a bully.
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When I was 16, I too knew a bully, and there were days when I would have happily traded my education and future to see her humiliated. But I am not 16, and the sight of adults handing out such abuse to a child is horrific.
Had Channel 4 hung the children out to dry? Absolutely not, but the same cannot be said of Twitter. "We cannot control social media reaction but we take our duty of care to the students incredibly seriously," said a Channel 4 spokeswoman.
In fact, the production company worked with the school, community, parents and children for months before consent was given. "We are working closely with an independent, chartered child psychologist who met the students before filming and is viewing the final programmes before they are broadcast."
All the children were given advice about social media, privacy settings and how best to react to criticism or not react. Last week Georgia "was prepared for the reaction, she knew what to expect so is feeling okay with it all." To be fair, she seemed it. (If the Twitter account really is hers.)
Have children of the Twitter age evolved to have thicker skins? It's hard to judge when you're my age and you assume that bullying got left behind at school. It's not Channel 4's fault, or Georgia's or Jac-Henry's, but sadly the response to Educating Yorkshire suggests that we now accept bullying as part of life.
Georgia and Jac-Henry will be fine. But for their sake, I'm sorry that not everybody can be sent to stand outside the head's office until they learn how to behave. School is hard enough; Twitter is an insult too far. The Independent