Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Blogs, kids, parents & teachers & cyber-bullying

According to a recent article on the BBC website, almost a third of kids in the UK now use blogs and social networking websites, "but two thirds of parents do not even know what they are".

We've all heard of the digital divide between technologically rich countries and technologically poor ones, but there are strong indications that there is another digital divide and it's generational. The article goes on to call this gap in technological knowledge between generations "alarming", and indeed it is.

Of course, this is "alarming" because unless adults have a clear picture of what the children are doing online, and take an interest, then they cannot guide them in matters of Internet safety, etc.

Here's anotgher quote from the article: "A tenth of the 11-year-olds who took part in the survey said their parents did not know about the people with whom they communicated online."

Why is this? Is it that they don't take an interest? Or aren't concerned about what their children are doing on the computer? Perhaps they just assume that the kids are "just playing a game", when so many more are turning to real communication (often combined with gaming). I remember hearing some great advice (on an Ed Tech Talk show I'm sure)about how to take an interest in what your children are doing online when they are at home, and to help ensure Internet safety : put the computer in a shared space, and not in the kids' bedroom. That way, you'll see what they are doing, and can also observe and take a greater interest in their online activities.

Of course, the situation isn't helped when the schools the kids go to simply ban these sites and don't offer any guidance either about safe and ethical Internet use when using these tools. I keep hearing stories about the insufficient attitude that most educational establishments have towards helping kids to use these new tools safely and effectively. And ethically too. It comes up frequently during conversations on Ed Tech Talk, and on edublogs, etc. Perhaps the people in charge think that these blogs, websites, and tools are just a passing phase and will shortly go away. When are they going to wake up?

By now, I'm sure that most educators (at least those with their ears open, and the ones who take time to talk to their students) have their own stories about kids and problems online. One of my students (studying English with me 2 x week at the academy) last year was involved in a cyber-bullying incident in her school. She, a fifteen year old found herself written about on a photo blog after falling out with two of her (ex)friends over a boy. Not only did they insult and write cruel comments about the student, but they published pictures of themselves with a knife and said that they should use the knives against her.

Obviously, these comments and blog posts made their way around the school because of the highly interconnectedness of the photo blogging software, and the girl became so seriously hurt by the exposure and pressure that she ended up skipping classes and, eventually, spending a week in hospital with depression. I got to know about this only after the whole incident had blown over, when she returned to my classes (she had been missing my classes too because of what was happening)and told all in one of the most highly absorbing and communicative classes of the whole year.

The most incredible aspect of the whole incident was the reaction of the school. It took a long time for the truth to come out. I think, if I remember rightly, that the girl only ended up telling her parents about what really had happened when she ended up in hospital. She had been acuteley embarrassed about the whole event, and had hoped it would blow over. Of course, the parents went to the school to complain about what the other students had done (with print-outs from the blogs). The school's reaction was to say that it had nothing to do with them; that this was something that was going on outside of school, and that they couldn't get involved, or punish the students who had posted the threats, etc. on their blogs The only thing they agreed to do was to ask the students to remove the offending posts.

As a result this cyber-bullied student was devastated, and feels betrayed and let down by adults and teachers in general, and by the school in particular. The parents decided the best would be for her to change to another school, and this is what has happened. But she feels bitter and has been deeply affected by the experience. I saw a dramatic change in her when she returned to class at the end of the year. Instead of the quite shy, happy, studious and friendly girl that had attended my classes at the beginning of the year, was an embittered, rebelious soul who wanted to end her education as soon as possible, and had lost faith and trust in the people she thought were previously there to keep her safe and to guide her. After hearing her story, I didn't blame her for feeling this way. I just felt sad that the education system had let her down, partly by trying to ignore the changing technological world that we live in, and by refusing to acknowledge a responsibility to help and to educate the young people of today to use this technology safely and wisely.

I just wonder how many more students are going to have to suffer as she did before schools recognise they have to do something other than ban sites such as Myspace. Let's hope for all our sakes it's not many.

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