Online and in tune: teenagers lead the digital charge

Parents urged to focus more on opportunities and less on risks for their children online

 

On many a night at 11pm Eamon Judge wanders into his living room at home in Kinsale, Co Cork, to find his 16-year-old daughter, Ciara, engaged in a multi-continent conference call on Skype: it always has to be 11pm to suit the different time zones.

He listens in bemusement to the animated interaction among a group of like-minded youngsters who first met at London’s International Youth Science Forum earlier this summer.

“It is a different type of conversation, quite cerebral – as well as the fun stuff,” he says. Digital technology has enabled Ciara to reach out across the world and overcome barriers in a way that he couldn’t even have started to envisage when he was her age.

Certainly, Ciara has grabbed many of the opportunities technology offers to enhance her education to exceptional effect. She is one of the three-member team from Kinsale Community School who won the top award at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in 2013, went on to win the EU equivalent and are in Silicon Valley this week as finalists in the Google Science Fair awards.

When researching their project, having “24-hour access to all the information in the world at our fingertips” through the internet was a huge help, she explains. They were looking at how to harness natural bacteria to accelerate germination in important food crops, which could help in the fight against world hunger.

“We would use the internet to look at scientific journals, which are so accessible and so easy to find because of the fact that you can search by keyword,” she says. They hunted for other research in their particular area of interest, only to discover it hadn’t been done yet.

“I’ve seen how much easier it is to use technology to do the research and how much it differs from the school system, where you sit down and read a book. My dream would be the fusion of the two,” says the fifth-year student, who is pursuing that particular vision through her involvement with the newly formed Digital Youth Council.

Another asset is having parents who, as Eamon explains, have a background in the Scouts where they have seen how youngsters thrive on getting the right support and being pointed in the right direction. “Wind them up and set them off and you have no idea where they’ll end up.”

The same approach, he adds, is taken in Ciara’s school, where there are now 110 pupils working on projects for the 2015 young scientist competition.

Parents should focus more on enhancing children’s opportunities on the internet and think less about risks, the latest report by EU Kids Online recommended earlier this month. It also urged them to treat media coverage of online risks critically.

In turn it called on the media “to avoid negative or overly sensationalist reporting”, given that most young people’s experiences with online technologies are positive and beneficial.

Of course parents are concerned for the welfare of their children, says the Irish leader for EU Kids Online, Brian O’Neill, who is head of the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology. But they tend to jump to the extreme, he suggests, trying to block and curtail the use of the internet. “We live in a world full of risk. It is about developing skills to be able to navigate successfully and develop resilience and be fully empowered. The digital world is no different.”

Risk-averse parents

In fact, the arguments made for risk-averse parents to give children more freedom outdoors in many ways runs parallel to allowing them to explore the internet. While keeping them indoors – or off the internet – might ensure their safety in the short term, they are not learning the nature of an environment that they will be exposed to in time, nor being given the chance to develop ways of coping with the risks.

O’Neill acknowledges that there is pornography online with very few controls around it. “Is that a reason to cut the internet or to stop young people exploring freely?”

A better approach is managing the risks through dialogue and support, keeping in mind the developmental age of the child. While a section of the internet safety community will always be promoting the latest in parental controls, O’Neill repeats the common observation that the “best software filter is the one between the ears”: children should be encouraged to develop their critical faculties.

While the EU Kids Online project shows that the percentage of children experiencing risk on the internet has gone up in recent years, O’Neill attributes that to increased use through mobile devices. And experiencing risk should not be confused with being hurt in some way.

The project found that 40 per cent of nine to 16 year olds had experienced one or more forms of risk online, yet just 12 per cent said they had been bothered or upset by something online. And there is research to back up the theory that a greater proportion of these affected children are vulnerable in some way in the “real world”.

This vulnerability may be due to having fewer skills or experiencing some kind of psychological difficulties or social adjustment problems, O’Neill explains.

Some US online safety organisations bring up these findings with almost a shrug of the shoulders, says independent technology consultant Rachel O’Connor of the London-based GroovyFuture. There is a sense that these youngsters don’t count because they’re already having a bad time in real life anyway. Instead, she argues, “it is where we should be concentrating our efforts”.

O’Connor, who, along with O’Neill, will be addressing the “Technology for Well-Being” conference in Dublin on Thursday (see sidebar), has worked with mental health organisations for several years on how best to meet and support people online.

A former chief security officer with the social networking site Bebo, she says mental health organisations need to get rid of their fear of the internet and to understand the dynamics of what is going on, so they can help people appropriately.

It is much the same with parents. As the mother of a 16 year old, O’Connor hears all the scary stories but knows she can’t limit her daughter’s exposure to the web “because it’s essential for her career”.

Young people make no distinction between their online and offline worlds, she observes, and they will apply the values they are brought up with to both. “It comes down to parenting [and teaching children to know] what is correct behaviour and what is wrong.”

She believes the internet-safety community needs to take some responsibility for the situation parents are in. They have promoted the notion that you need to be fearful, with undue focus on the risks.

“It is not proportionate: these risks can happen but the majority of the time kids are having a perfectly positive time online and that is where the balance is wrong.”

Parental paranoia needs to be addressed, agrees Harry McCann, the 15-year-old founder of the Digital Youth Council (DYC), which had its first meeting last month. He recalls somebody at a recent cyberbullying conference he attended describing the internet as a “monster”.

“It’s not a monster: it’s how you approach it,” he says. “Parents don’t need to be experts. They just need to know enough that it is not a scary subject.”

If people who condemn Facebook without ever going on it took a step back and looked at it from the inside rather than from the outside, they might see it differently, he says.

Parents should look into what children are using the internet for before trying to stop it. While there are things that have to be blocked for younger children, there is no point in giving older children a tablet and blocking everything on it, he argues.

“The whole point of technology is to learn new things. I don’t think most kids go looking for porn: I’ve never done it.”

Having been a CoderDoJo mentor for two years, Harry set up his own company, Kid Tech, last year to “teach the next generation tech”.

The use of technology to enhance education is something he feels strongly about and it is why he founded the DYC. Its aim is to give young people a voice on the future of technology in education and plans to establish mini-councils in schools throughout the country and gather feedback for policymakers.

“We’ve got loads of people ready to take on these views and opinions,” says Harry. The DYC has an advisory board that includes Ciaran Cannon, a Galway TD and founder of Excited, which promotes collaboration between young people, education and enterprise .

Personally, Harry, who is in transition year at Scoil Mhuire in Clane, Co Kildare, believes schools should be teaching coding.

“I will be finished third-level education by the time you’ll get coding in schools. It’s ridiculous.” Compare this with, say, South Korea, where all children have learned coding by the time they leave primary school.

Harry says Kid Tech was approached last September by 50 schools looking for him to come and teach coding. “Teachers are at a total loss at what they have to do.”

Ciara, who is another of the council’s 12 members, is equally passionate on this topic. “Education is all about educating people so they are equipped for the future,” she says.

“If the outside world is moving faster than the education system, then the exports from the education system, which are the students, won’t be ready to keep up with the outside world.”

In many schools the hardware is there but fear among teachers appears to be holding back greater integration of technology.

Ciara believes “satellite specialists”, to be shared by a number of schools, could be the answer because it is “ridiculous” to think teachers could teach computer science or coding on top of another subject.

Harry’s father, Stephen, acknowledges that his youngest son’s knowledge of technology far exceeds his own.

He remembers how his own father refused to use a TV remote control when it came into the house. “I am that person now.”

However, he is rightly proud of the way that Harry, who has two older brothers and a younger sister, is applying a business understanding to his passion for digital technology.

“He is not earning a fortune but he has made money with Kid Tech, which is impressive for a 15 year old.” The teenager is also in big demand to address various forums and conferences and is comfortable speaking in front of Government ministers and educators.

Is Stephen worried that Harry has outgrown school? “I would say that the education system is not for him,” he replies frankly: at least not the academic side.

Speaking ahead of this year’s Junior Cert results, he did not expect his son to be getting a pile of As: “That was not his focus.”

However, Harry is clearly an exceptionally bright self-starter, so Stephen is not worried about his son’s career prospects. In fact, he adds, “I am hoping to work for him some day.”

swayman@irishtimes.com Find helpful information for parents on webwise.ie

 

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