Children in an Online World

Did you know: around a quarter of children in the UK think that, if a website is listed on Google, then it has been through some kind of authentication process and its content can be trusted.

Here are some graphics that I pulled off an Ofcom report from 2017.

I do not claim any expertise in the matters I discuss below, but I have worries that I felt were worth noting down. We’re all, whether we like it or not, part of an ever-growing community where no-one seems especially clear on the rules and there is limited and often ineffective supervision. Our children are becoming ever more active participants in a world that many of us know little about. 25% of 8 to 12 year olds in the UK have a social media profile. Once you go past 12 years old, that figure goes up to 75%.

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Digital technology has become, over the past decade, a huge part of our children’s lives. Fibre-optic cables have snaked their way down every corridor and we live under the reassuring touch of a blanket of permanent Wi-Fi coverage. I was camping in the black mountains a few years ago, in a place where my loudest shout would not reach another human ear and yet I could still find a solitary bar of signal on my phone; an umbilical cord keeping me connected with the world. I don’t know whether this is a good thing or not. The relentless advance of this new way of interacting with each other has swept through British society with little time for us to adjust and evaluate the impact it has on us and our children. More and more time is spent looking into screens so that it becomes difficult to gaze beyond the glass, into the hazy past of even the year 2000 to remember what we used to look at, how we used to order pizzas or find our way around a strange town. All this we can now do via our phones and tablets if we wish.

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How we used to check the football scores

I’m a big fan of the NFL and, when I was at school, I remember coming downstairs on a Monday morning and getting Teletext on my TV. I would type in page four hundred and whatever and up would come the results from the night before so I could see how my team had done. Nowadays I have an app on my phone that lets me see play by play analysis as it happens. I could even watch the games on there if I wanted to pay the money. Every world newspaper is there at my fingertips. There is a massive amount of knowledge available through these devices, all the learning that anyone could absorb in twenty lifetimes. I heard a joke last week about libraries.

“What’s a library?

“It’s a big printout of Wikipedia where you have to be quiet.”

Beyond the knowledge, technology allows us to be constantly in touch with the people we care about. It lets us talk to people on the other side of the world, to share common interests, to be creative and share our creativity with billions. The online world can be a beautiful place where you can find friends across oceans who you would never have otherwise met, have rich conversations and become more aware of the wonderful diversity of humanity. I have travelled this online world extensively and I have seen so many positive interactions between people. I have also seen the ugliest side of prejudice and hate, the cowardly few lashing out at people from the warmth and security of their homes, with the luxury of anonymity afforded by fake profile names. It’s all out there at the touch of a button; so many roads to travel. The very roads that so many of our children travel alone.

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As a father myself, I worry greatly about the pathways that my children will have to navigate as they grow older. Our children have access to tablets and mobile telephones and this unlocks a world of knowledge and learning for them, giving them the keys to the whole world in one go. No street or avenue is necessarily restricted. Think of this: we would not let our young children explore on their own a new city or town, and yet so many of them are allowed to wander the digital pathways of cyberspace with little or nothing in the way of guidance. Their knowledge of technology and its application grows exponentially year upon year, leaving it a near impossible task to keep up with as adults. We go to great lengths in schools in the UK to teach children about safer Internet use, and there is research that shows that many young people acknowledge this and are aware of the risks. They know to question whether online news is truth or fiction, they know that YouTubers get money for endorsing certain products, and they know that strangers they chat to online may not be who they claim. Unfortunately, the most risky things do not always happen in our interactions with strangers. They happen when children talk with their friends.

Over the past few years, I have penned several pretty much identical letters warning parents of interactions children are having on platforms such as Snapchat, Oovoo and Xbox Live. Worried children come to me with their parents holding printed records of conversations they have had online that have not gone well. They have been called names, ridiculed, insulted; I’m sure you know of what I am speaking. Many times, these children have responded in kind. It goes on from year to year and I write the same letter expecting things to change. Every year, a new platform emerges on which children can interact with each other and every year some of those interactions end in hurt. I have come to admit to myself that it is not the platforms to blame; rather it is us.

Technology is here to stay and we are going to have to exist in this digital world. Beyond interactions with their friends and peers, children will interact with people they have never met. Our adult duty as parents, teachers and as a society is to be the best models of how these interactions should go. And it’s difficult, because who among us has the real wisdom that comes from experience? This world and this technology is so new that we are all finding our feet at the same time. We tend to think that we have control over our interactions with social media. We decide what we look at, who we speak to, how long we spend online. The truth is that, on the other side of the touchscreen, there are thousands of people whose job it is to keep you looking or direct you to certain places. Look at something on Amazon and then, next time you look at Facebook there’s an advertisement for that very thing awaiting you. The second or two it takes for Twitter to display how many notifications you have isn’t lag or poor internet connection; it’s designed around the same principle as a fruit machine. It makes you want to keep checking.

Thankfully, whatever road you’re travelling, the basics of respect remain the same.

Computer-Argument

I know that children from my primary school use Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Whatsapp, and that many of them have YouTube accounts. Lots of them play the online video game, Fortnite. Most of these apps and games have recommended age restrictions of 12, 13 or even 16 years. In some cases having an account is predicated on this being your age. Children have already been dishonest before they have begun using them, all with our silent consent as it’s easier than causing a fuss. We don’t want them to feel left out when all their friends are doing it, right? I would never presume to preach about this situation as I am going to face all these same challenges very soon myself. I remember speaking very dismissively about how much TV my children would be allowed to watch and I have to have a hard look at myself sometimes after the fourth episode of Paw Patrol my boy’s watched because I just needed some time to myself. I know how hard it is and I know that I don’t know the half of it yet. Consider that though; the very act of signing up for an account with one of these systems is already signalling our complicity in their dishonesty. We’re saying it’s OK to lie. What else is it OK to do?

Whatsapp is a great system, allowing free messaging and keeping down costs, but we know that children are setting up large chat groups sometimes in order to discuss other children. Older children are added to the group without everyone’s consent and personal information is shared in a very risky environment. In some cases, children are afraid to leave groups because they think they will be spoken about if they do. Even after you’ve blocked someone on Whatsapp, someone else can invite them into a group and they have full access to you. In the past I’ve been shown evidence of conversations that go on into the early hours of the morning. It’s all going on right now and how much responsibility should we, as adults, be taking?

What about gaming? I mentioned Fortnite before. You can’t escape it at the minute. You only have to wander around the kids’ section at WH Smiths to see Fortnite pencil cases, Fortnite bags and t-shirts. There is no-one out there who can say that this game isn’t being marketed at younger children even though it has a PEGI-12 rating, and yet it isn’t a million miles away from Grand Theft Auto in terms of its content. We have children in our Reception classes who talk about playing it. We have heard of children using parents’ credit cards to buy apps and add-ons for games without their knowledge. The video game industry is a huge thing, bigger than the film and music industry put together in terms of revenue. It’s only getting bigger and the marketing power behind it is on a level that we cannot comprehend.

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Cutting edge graphics from my childhood

Now, I love video games. I’ve played them since I was very young and my Dad brought home a ZX Spectrum 48k, the zenith of technology at the time. I played for hours. Games back then looked very different. I made a little pixelated ball run across a road and then ski down a mountain. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I was able to empty the magazine of a high-powered assault rifle into a Nazi soldier. By this age I like to think (though some might disagree) that I had the emotional intelligence to differentiate between the virtual game world and reality. Can a ten year old do that? When they blow someone up and then Floss over their corpse, what process are they going through? I’m an adult; I can appreciate the biting satire and tongue in cheek humour of Grand Theft Auto. I can rationalise things and say to myself, after some thirteen year old in Iowa has told me I suck and then blown my head off in Call of Duty for the tenth time, that maybe this isn’t the healthiest use of my time. Can a ten year old understand that? What impact is it having? I don’t know but I think it’s a least worth a conversation.

I would never place the blame for society’s ills on the game industry. There is just as much artistry and narrative in some of these products as there is in any other entertainment, but maybe we need tougher controls on how young children access them. Just maybe, games like Fortnite shouldn’t be shoved into our children’s consciousnesses by putting them and their associated tie-in products on the same supermarket aisle as My Little Pony.

fortnite

When it comes to YouTube, as I said, many children have accounts and use them to create content about their lives. In Year 6 these days, whereas children in my day used to list their future aspirations as being engine drivers (not really, no-one even said that any more when I was a child) and astronauts, now they want to be YouTubers. They idolize the successful ones and want to emulate their achievements from the comfort of their own bedrooms. Do our children have the reasoning intelligence to judge how much of themselves they want to show the entire world? These images and videos, once published, are potentially out there forever. Children keep video diaries and think they’re just speaking into the screen or to their friends, but really they’re speaking to the world. Can they grasp this? They see someone with a few thousand followers and attach a prestige to that, imbuing that person with instant, unearned authority over them. This is a person to whom I should listen, no matter what that person is demonstrating or encouraging.

Most young children use YouTube to watch cartoons or music videos. As they get older, they go for funny videos or pranking or, for reasons I will never understand, videos of other people playing video games. You might think that watching cartoons is no great shakes. While it was in my mind, I went to have a look at My Little Pony…

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Innocent enough, right? Be careful in the comments section, though. You never know what’s going to be lurking…

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Whether its YouTube or Whatsapp, Instagram or Snapchat, or even notes passed in the playground, when communication is used to harm others it is our duty to act to make things better. Where there are a number of children over the years who have been made to feel uncomfortable, who have been exposed to highly explicit language and where children are using social media as a tool for bullying, we have a duty to work together; to try everything in our power to fix it. Also, we need to be open and honest with our children about the concerns that we have and where they come from. They need to know that this isn’t just knee-jerk, technophobe propaganda from the last generation. They need to learn the lessons and see the impacts for themselves.

It is not my intention here to judge or apportion blame for anything that is going on online; simply turning everything off and taking it away from our children is not the answer and it will not help in the long term. We’re all going to have to find a way to live in this brave new world which has so many possibilities. Looking at problems and simply pointing the finger in a certain direction will not solve any of society’s issues. We are all infants when it comes to wisdom in these matters and these technologies are here to stay. They will have evolved even further between me writing this and you reading it. It is simply my wish to start a real conversation, raise awareness and help to foster an atmosphere where we, as adults, can help our children thrive and be happy in the digital world. As I said before, we are all part of this global community. We’re all part of it and we all bear some responsibility for improving our children’s futures.

Thanks for reading

Richard Austin

Most of my statistics came from this OFCOM report, published in November 2017.  There is quite a lot more information within it if you care to look a little deeper. You can find out a bit more about me and my life as a teacher here

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Photo credit Artem Kim via Unsplash

 

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