Keith Newman talks to an educational bridge-builder who’s helping reconnect Hawke’s Bay parents with their digital age offspring.

The growing digital generation gap is making many parents feel alienated, uninformed and ill equipped to supervise the online behaviour of their children, who appear to be perpetually tapping away at something riveting on their mobile devices.

Smartphones, iPads and tablet computers, once considered luxury items and banned in the schoolyard, are now in use by many pre-teens and teens as mainstream learning and communication tools.

“Online is the new playing field where young people are doing their risk-taking unsupervised, and for some, it’s having an impact on their emotional development,” says Anj Webster, who’s been running parent and student workshops at Hawke’s Bay schools.

Anj Webster, Hereworth School

Webster, who is director of visual arts and technology at Havelock North’s Hereworth School, says some parents are trying to upskill, while others suffer in frustration, feeling “left behind, out of the loop, powerless and estranged” because their kids know more than they do.

They want to understand more about the social networking sites, gaming apps and other things their kids are engaging with, how it is affecting them, and how to manage their screen time.

Webster is the mother of two teenage daughters who grew up with social media. She’s completing her Masters in Education on the impact of technology on learning and online behaviour, and says taking punitive measures is unhelpful and putting boundaries in place can be a battle.

She says the digital world is highly engaging for young people who love meeting, talking, interacting and competing online, and recommends building a relationship around the use of technology as early as possible.

“If you put rules in place while they are young then you can let them out slowly, but if you start broad it’s much harder in the teenage years.”

Homework for parents

Webster urges parents to do their homework so they can make informed decisions. Take time to find out about a particular game or site children are interested in and whether there is any age censorship; restrict time online and ensure the smartphone or tablet has a designated place overnight other than the bedroom.

Turning the wireless network off at night might help, but Webster says even then young people can use offline apps that will keep them up late at night.

No matter how out of touch they may feel, parents should not underestimate their own power. “Children don’t come wired with wisdom to manage themselves online and many continue to get themselves in a pickle.”

While there might be a place for confiscating technology, it can have a negative impact as being connected and “part of something bigger than themselves” is associated with young people’s sense of identity.

As technology becomes more pervasive at schools, Webster says there will be a growing need for strategies and policies around cyber safety and cyber citizenship. The need for digital literacy is huge, and includes “understanding how to engage in a world that, along with the technology, keeps evolving”.

A real concern is that teachers and school leaders are already overwhelmed by their existing commitments. “Many don’t have time to understand how to use the resources or get a big picture view of what is going on.”

They’re not helped by the National Administration Guidelines for education, NAG5, which require schools to ensure a safe physical and emotional environment for students, creating “a massive blurred grey area” that extends beyond the school boundary.

That can include stepping in to deal with quite “explosive situations” including text and online bullying or the uploading of explicit or other inappropriate still or filmed images.

Protect online reputation

While technology provides a great opportunity to be entrepreneurial and creative, Anj Webster says young people need to be more resilient and protective of their online identity, privacy and content.

She’s big on young people taking personal responsibility for their online reputation, their behaviour and the consequences of choices made. “No one else can do it for you. It’s your reputation and you have to manage it and live with it.”

Many young people have multiple online identities and it’s too easy to misrepresent yourself or have others misrepresent you. “It’s important to be informed about privacy and security settings to limit what people can do with your information.”

Young people need to establish some norms and expectations around respecting others, how they want to be respected and to realise they have the power to control their online world.

While research shows social networks are a forum where shy and insecure teenagers can feel part of something, which is good for their esteem and development, there are plenty of opportunities for harmful communications to undermine esteem.

She urges a “think before you click” approach, particularly around uploading personal images. “What happens on your social media site can affect judgements people make about you at school, university, in the workplace or in employment opportunities.”

Girls in particular need to be careful about putting themselves into vulnerable situations where they are having photos taken or taking photos and sharing them with boyfriends. “Don’t give your Facebook and other passwords to anyone and don’t post any photos of yourself that you wouldn’t show your grandma.”

She says online activities and postings create a permanent shadow even after you think you’ve deleted them. “It’s like a digital tattoo … even when you’ve had it removed, it leaves a scar that can be with you the rest of your life.”

Cyber bully backlash

Although the internet can be a conduit for working out relationships and conflicts, when these escalate into cyberbullying or inappropriate material going viral, the victim becomes very visible.

Webster says one in five children are now experiencing cyber bullying, and that’s only the ones who are brave enough to report it. More often it’s girls who report bulling and research shows more girls appear to cyberbully than boys.

A recent concern was the Latvian site, with 65 million mostly teen users, where anonymous questions could be asked and answered. It ran into trouble when individuals began “trolling and flaming” to see how much others could handle, even challenging them to commit suicide – nine did.

While Netsafe, supported by the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice and InternetNZ, provides warnings and helpful advice for concerned parents and teachers in New Zealand, Webster says it’s only a small unit and “the ambulance at the bottom of the hill” for those who get into trouble.

Webster says teens need to feel comfortable in openly discussing the sites they visit and issues like online bullying, to ensure it is not accepted as a normal behaviour or ignored in the hope it will go away.

This kind of behaviour is often not reported because teens fear parents will come down hard on them or take away their technology. “When young people are encouraged to be part of the solution, and can develop their own ideas about raising awareness and options, it is very powerful.”

She says the laws are changing to protect people and expose perpetrators. She welcomes the Harmful Digital Communications Bill as “a case of the law catching up and saying what some people are doing online is not OK.”

Webster says young people need to take their power back. It’s OK to go off Facebook for a while, to take time out, to say ‘no’ to friend requests or even delete your entire Facebook page and start again.

She suggests auditing Facebook friends every six months. “Do you really want those same 800 people following you when you leave high school and go to university or into the business world?”

Accelerated learning

Faster fixed and mobile broadband is facilitating fundamental shifts in what is taught, how and where, and presenting a challenging curve for schools, teachers and students that will impact the education system for the foreseeable future.

Webster, says schools must rethink how technology is changing children’s learning ability in order to prepare them for the workplace of the future. There’s already evidence of a shift away from the teacher at the front model designed for industrial age graduates.

She says 21st century learning places the student’s voice, needs and skills at the centre, with a more holistic view around collaboration, the integration of subjects, and teaching around how the wider community operates.

Innovation, creativity, entrepreneurial thinking and the ability to solve real-world problems are keys to the skill sets of the future, where “adaptive and flexible thinkers” are in demand.

Key to this is meta-cognition – thinking about thinking – the ability to stand back and ask yourself how you are doing something, why you are doing it and whether this is the best way.

Essentially this is about learning how to learn for an age in which people have multiple jobs and need to continue acquiring skills.

Webster says there’s already evidence that the digital age is not only widening the generation gap but actually rewiring the way our brains process information.

Research shows children as young as two years old are truly becoming digital natives. “The neurological make-up or wiring of their brain looks different as a result of using digital technologies.”

Using the mega-cognition metaphor, perhaps we all need to be asking what we’re filling our minds with, why, and where it’s taking us, considering we are already deeply immersed in the digital learning revolution.

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