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Dublin: 0 °C Thursday 27 November, 2014

Column: The lack of positive content for young people in digital media is a real concern

Digital technology can give incredibly positive opportunities, but there has to be a concerted effort to get the best out of the medium, writes Brian O’Neill.

Brian O'Neill

ARE DIGITAL AND social media something positive in young people’s lives, a nuisance, or even a harmful distraction? Is it possible to get young people to move away from consuming through technology to creating with technology?

These are some of the questions the National Youth Council has been debating at its international ‘Screenagers’ seminar this week. The event has brought together youth workers from across Europe to discuss how to make digital a positive opportunity rather than something that causes alarm.

Concerns about the risks that young people encounter online are understandable. Adolescents are naturally curious as well as risk-takers. On the open internet, they have access to content that would have been unthinkable some years ago. Is that a problem?

It is also the case that social media provide yet another platform for young people to be mean and sometimes very nasty to one another. But is that a reason to keep Facebook out of the classroom?

A complex relationship

Young people’s relationship with media and communications has always been a complex and sometimes fraught one. Maintaining strict control on content that may not be suitable for young people – out of genuine concern for their development – has been a theme of media policy for many years. But with digital convergence and connected devices everywhere, the idea of a ‘watershed’ may be increasingly difficult to sustain.

At the same time, one must be concerned about the availability, or lack of it, rather, of positive, beneficial content for young people in a media environment that appears to be getting ever more commercial.

Twenty-five years ago, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child raised some pertinent questions about the quality of media provision. Article 17, in particular, called on the media to provide material of social and cultural benefit to young people while placing a responsibility on governments to protect children from ‘information and material injurious to his or her well-being’.

Digital environments and free speech

On the 10th anniversary of the UN Convention, the Norwegian government with UNICEF issued the so-called Oslo Challenge to global media to bring about a step change in how the media act in relation to the best interests of children and young people. Some 25 years after the original landmark treaty, it is not clear to what extent the media has lived up to this challenge. One area, though, where undeniable progress has been made is in the way the digital environment has fostered free speech.

Article 13 of the Convention states that young people have the right to freedom of expression, including the ‘freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds… through any other media of the child’s choice’.

Online freedom of expression, as events in Turkey currently show, is something that cannot be taken for granted. The 25th opportunity to develop a new approach to rights in the digital age and on society’s responsibility to empower young people as digital citizens.

Brian O’Neill, Dublin Institute of Technology is Chair of the Internet Content Governance Advisory Group established by Pat Rabbitte TD, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. He was speaking at Screenagers International: Using ICT, Digital and Social Media in Youth, organised by the National Youth Council of Ireland.

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