Chilling results emerged this week from an online survey by One Poll about social networking and school children. So damning is the report about the negative influence of such websites as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo on educational standards, that it might even constitute legitimate cause to ban school children from these websites altogether.

The survey collected evidence from 500 teachers across the UK, with a shocking two thirds reporting that children are rushing through their homework in order to spend time online, mainly on highly popular social networking sites such as the ubiquitous Facebook. Half of the teachers surveyed were also confident that what they described as an “obsession” with such websites was distracting the attention of children from their classwork, preventing them from making crucial progress at school.

We can add to this direct evidence the reasonable assumption that young students’ obsessive use of Facebook adds to social cliques, bullying and popularity contests; all negative factors detracting from concentration and learning, both in school and out.

Perhaps more worryingly still, the teachers polled drew a direct correlation between the increased use of computers and keyboards in the digital age and the declining standards in writing, with 58% stating that children’s handwriting and spelling were suffering as a result of their dependency on typing and spellchecks.

With the abbreviations of ‘text speak’ creeping ever more into everyday writing and conversation, and less and less children reading books, are we heading towards an entire generation of illiterate (Facebook-fluent) youngsters?

Janie Burt, a spokeswoman for JCA, the company that commissioned the poll, warned against the dire consequences for the children’s futures and chances of continuing into higher education when social networking is “affecting their grades because they fail to complete their homework on time or to the standard required,” and they are “unable to concentrate in class.”

Academic concerns aside, the impact of social networking and the disturbing reality of children leading a virtual, voyeuristic existence, are also reported to be having a deep and damaging impact on the evolution of their sense of self and their awareness of the world around them, not to mention their perceptions of human interaction and relationships. As Burt explains, “rather than relying on life experiences, educational travel and face to face interaction with others, children are becoming obsessed with social networking and this is shaping their attitudes instead.”

One cannot help but fear for the maturity and development of a generation of children whose experiences of human interaction and behaviour are shaped by who has ‘poked’ them on Facebook or added them as a virtual ‘friend’. The voyeuristic nature of online social networking sites, where users create avatars and images of themselves and their lives to project a socially desirable existence, often distorts the reality of growing up and is likely to be extremely disorientating and damaging to children. Often users are able to create a fake veneer of popularity and flashy, exciting experiences using photographs and ‘status updates’, which can leave less ‘popular’ children feeling worthless and devalued by comparison.

Added to this are the raft of obvious concerns about online safety, with social networking sites providing copious opportunities for children to be approached and contacted by adults posing as their peers. A recent computer monitoring software report revealed that 89% of inappropriate sexual solicitations are made either in chat rooms or via instant messaging systems such as that recently added to the Facebook service. Whilst the site does attempt to protect the safety of its users by allowing them to choose to ‘accept’ or ‘deny’ friend requests, these do not prevent another user who is not their ‘friend’ from sending them a message, nor from disguising their identity in order to approach children.

With 4 million children posting content to the web every day, less and less time is being spent concentrating on their education, whether it is because they are on Facebook when they should be doing their homework, not concentrating in class, or failing to learn to write and spell correctly because they are so busy typing and writing in text message abbreviations.

I would like to hear any strong counter argument to the suggestion that school children simply shouldn’t be allowed on social networking websites such as Facebook. I can understand the value of the internet as a learning tool under controlled conditions, but beyond that it should surely be a predominantly adult zone.

The impact on their education is dire and is eventually going to produce an entire generation with a less-than-literate workforce. Keeping them off these sites will improve their spelling, concentration, homework and handwriting according to hundreds of teachers who know them and understand their potential best, whilst their personal safety and cultural experience will both be vastly improved. It must be a win-win situation.