In the age where the word ‘selfie’ officially appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, and Apple sells 34000 iPhones per hour, it is impossible to escape the impact that technology has on our everyday lives. Millennials who have grown up in this tech-obsessed environment have been labelled “Generation C”, referring to their hyper-connected lives. Continual non-verbal communication through social media, email, texting, instant messaging and other digital platforms, is as instinctive to them as face-to-face contact – it seems inconceivable to them that the internet and other forms of technology did not always pervade every aspect of life. These digital natives are also developing skills and an adaptability that will be absolutely necessary to succeed in the jobs of the future, many of which do not yet exist.
Technology, and particularly the internet, has opened up a whole world of opportunities for education, creativity, knowledge, sharing, and communicating. However, there are also potential risks that young people need to be protected from and educated about. These issues range from personal safety, to privacy, to concerns over literacy. Although these problems may all spring from technology, solving them is not dependent on parents and teachers being more tech-savvy than Generation C. How can schools and families prepare children to use technology responsibly and make them aware of potential problems?
One of the most fundamental issues that schools currently face is integrating technology into learning and lessons in the right way. On the one hand, many teachers find that technology engages children and keeps their attention, and are investing in iPads, interactive smart boards and laptops. In geography and science, technology allows teachers to better illustrate their lessons with online resources, such as the National Geographic’s interactive education section, the BBC Nature video collection or even NASA’s multimedia resources. In history, students can supplement their textbooks with extra context from the archives of online magazines such as History Today and Horrible Histories, or by watching YouTube videos that bring speeches and other important events to life. GCSE, IB and A Level students have immediate access to thousands of past questions and mark schemes on exam boards’ websites. In some countries, large tech companies, such as Google, are paying for coding courses in schools. Art students can explore apps such as Artsy, which gives access to art from over 2000 galleries worldwide. If they cannot make a visit in person, they can now download apps that major galleries, such as the Louvre, have created. Such resources mean that access to education and information has never been so democratic, and it has dramatically changed the way our children learn.
On the other hand, involving technology in classes and homework has provided students with huge distractions, and teachers with new challenges. During classes, many teachers battle with students over smartphones and computer usage, struggling to prevent students from straying from the assignment. With lots of homework dependent on the use of a computer, it is more difficult for parents to monitor their children, and keep them from hiding themselves away in their rooms. As students are increasingly multi-tasking in their personal lives (watching TV with a computer and iPad on their lap, while texting), they may need to learn to focus on one thing and to prioritise tasks. A challenge in itself is to teach the ‘Google’ generation that although all of this information is instantly available at their fingertips, there is enormous value in knowing things yourself. Although calculators and word processors may correct all of your mathematics and English mistakes, literacy and numeracy are still fundamental life skills.
There are some more serious issues that schools and parents between them are facing in the modern world. The younger generation will likely have a slacker notion of the importance of privacy, posting on social networks every day and leaving an indelible, digital trace of their social interactions. In most cases this is harmless and of course we should not be overly paranoid. Even so, children and young people need to be made aware that everything they post is public (even with supposed privacy settings) and permanent (even if they delete it). In ten years’ time, will they want employers, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends or foes to have access to private photos? There is also evidence to suggest that increased usage of social networks causes a sense of inadequacy and insecurity because users too heavily believe all of the ‘hype’ and endless positivity that others project about their lives. Getting too caught up in this world at the expense of real human interaction can cause a sense of emptiness because you only receive what people want to show you.
Among people of all ages there is also a notion that people are anonymous on the internet, which often leads to bullies (or ‘trolls’ as they are known online) feeling less culpable, largely because people tend to feel freer to write things online that they would not dare to say to people’s faces. Bullying used to be clearer cut as a problem – schools felt a responsibility to act if it was happening during school time, and victims of bullying would have had some respite when they went home. With technology, victims can feel reachable 24/7 as kids are constantly plugged in. Both schools and parents can help teach children the importance of ethical behaviour online just as they do in the real world. It is also important that they understand that they have a choice to escape the permanently connected virtual world – simply by switching it off! There is a growing consensus that these issues should be talked about – many schools are tackling these problems head-on and have brought in trained counsellors, community police officers, or technology specialists to explain these issues to young people.
Technology businesses are also increasingly focused on designing products to reflect, predict and shape how we behave. Our iPhones can tell us how long it takes to get to work from home before we ask. Facebook, in a bid to deliver more value for advertisers, encourages you to surrender more and more personal information to sell to them. It even has a special ‘empathy team’, who, as well as being tasked with helping engineers and designers understand more about the site’s users, is also responsible for discussing ad campaigns with large corporate clients. Our emails and search results are scanned and analysed in order to personalise internet advertising even further. We accept this in return for access to ‘free’ social media, email, instant messaging and search engines, and we understand how we are really ‘paying’ for these things. We understand that the data and photos will be stored indefinitely on the servers of the internet company and that they make their money from our personal information. Children also need to be given these overarching perspectives on the businesses whose services and products they enjoy every day, and helped to realise that if they are not paying for the product, they ARE the product.
The generation gap between the tech literacy of children and adults does not have to leave the older generation powerless. Obviously there are many amazing ways that the internet enables our children and students to learn and discover the best things about the world. Teachers and parents are guiding children to understand that the internet should not and cannot be a law-free, ethics-free, grammar-free, privacy-free parental-influence-free extension of real life. Just as we do in health, food, exercise and other areas of life, we should be teaching children to take responsibility for their behaviour and act positively and with caution in the virtual world.
By International School Parent Magazine Editorial Team