The World Changes. Children Don’t
Last week Sophie wrote about the dilemmas we face as parents over allowing our children mobile phones, not least as they are gateways to the internet and its benefits and potential risks. On Tuesday at Highfield and Brookham, together with thousands of other schoolchildren and educators, Government ministers, businesses, celebrities, numerous campaigners and charities in the UK, we celebrated Safer Internet Day (SID). This year’s theme - Together for a better internet, #freetobeme – focused on online identity and on whether young people are truly free to be themselves online.
We held a whole school assembly reflecting on how we as individuals can help shape a positive internet for everyone to enjoy, regardless of differences. The children then had the opportunity to discuss this further in small groups with their tutors, role-playing certain scenarios, and producing awareness posters and rap songs.
The research behind this year’s SID theme, focusing on 8 to 17 year olds and their parents, reveals that online experiences are a fundamental part of young people’s identity. Almost half of the children asked said that what they do and see online contributes to their identity, making up an essential part of who they are offline. Over half admitted they would feel lost, confused, or as if they’d lost a part of themselves if their online accounts were taken away. A third said it was easier to be themselves online than offline, seeing it as a safe space to explore and grow.
And it goes on. Because of the internet, 51% have felt better emotionally or less alone, 47% have gained confidence to be themselves, and a significant number have found support they couldn’t find offline. 46% also say they understand other people’s identities better because of things they have seen online.
One thing is clear: online experiences are informing and inspiring a generation and young people are feeling empowered to use the internet to explore and creatively shape their identities. Erik Qualman’s Digital Transformation 2019 certainly makes you stop and think.
Whilst some of these statistics may seem heartening to many, to others they will be a surprise and, perhaps, a real concern. Amongst parents, the internet – social media, gaming and live streaming in particular - often gets a bad press, highlighted in the 65% of parents who worry that the internet is a place of negativity and 39% who believe that the internet has more influence on their child than they do. Of course, pressures and challenges do exist online – cyberbullying, the pursuit of perfection, judgemental behaviour, sexual predators; the list goes on, and it would be remiss of parents not to take this very seriously indeed.
As educators and parents, desperate to protect and guide, we spend a lot of time warning children of the potential pitfalls of technology misuse and, on reflection, relatively little time in developing real empathy within ourselves for the digital world in which they live. We tend to want to coax our children away from being online too much instead of working with them to develop a healthy and constructive engagement with the internet. Although it is steadily closing, the generational digital gap remains and can result in parents feeling ill equipped to support their children in this endeavour. As a consequence, essential conversations with our children are sometimes avoided or are less successful than we would hope.
What struck me most on a course I recently attended to become a CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection) Ambassador* was the fact that when asked, the majority of children wanted to reach out to their parents and talk about their online activities and identity. As with most aspects of their lives, even though they don’t actively ask for it, children want boundaries, support, guidance and discipline, particularly when navigating tricky paths, and the online world is no different. The world changes. Children don’t.
In a mobile age, children cannot be completely protected, even by the best privacy controls. Fortunately, as adults, we can teach them the skills they require to stay safe. However, we can only do this effectively if we work hard not to be left behind as technology develops.
So, if you haven’t already, please do start your digital dialogue, no matter the age of your child, and work hard to maintain it through the different stages of their digital development: from the eerily addictive unwrapping of Kinder Eggs on YouTube, much enjoyed by my own children, to the SnapChat interactions of our older pupils. Ask them what apps they enjoy using and why; try not to belittle their perceived addiction; encourage your child to think carefully about the way they behave online and how they might deal with difficult situations; embrace the internet as a place of positivity for young people whilst acknowledging the pressures and challenges it also brings.
Together we grow. Online.
*As CEOP Ambassador, I will be inviting Highfield and Brookham parents to attend a series of ‘Digital Dialogue’ interactive training sessions in the hope of helping you feel confident and equipped in this all-important parental role. Details to follow after the Half Term break.