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Column: Restricting young people's access to social networks would be a huge mistake

It would be foolish to overlook the amazing opportunities social networks and other digital tools present for young people just because older generations are intimated by change, writes Dr Stephen Brennan.

Dr Stephen Brennan

IT’S A COLD, wintry evening and, in a room in the heart of the Liberties, a group of teenagers is hard at work.

In one corner, five young people confer excitedly over how best to edit a film they’ve just shot. Nearby, another group records and edits podcasts.

Two teenagers listen intently to a tutor, brows furrowed in concentration as he explains how to build a smartphone app. Alongside them, three young people upload new text and photos to their blogs.

This is Future Creators, a free after-school programme for 13 to 16-year-olds in Dublin 8, delivered by the Digital Hub Development Agency in collaboration with the National College of Art and Design.

Engaged, communicative and interested in learning

Typically, participants in Future Creators come from designated disadvantaged schools and are at risk of early school-leaving. They are under no compulsion to take part in the programme, and they get no reward under the formal education system for doing so. Yet, two evenings each week, they eagerly show up to learn new digital skills at The Digital Hub.

An evaluation of Future Creators conducted last year showed young people were performing better at school as a result of their participation in the programme, and were becoming more engaged, communicative and interested in learning.

One local teacher spoke in a tone of happy disbelief about a student who had had high levels of absenteeism and was on the verge of leaving school until he participated in Future Creators. Within a couple of months, his attendance levels were at a record high, and he had abandoned the idea of finishing his education early.

Learning skills relevant to their envrionment

When you speak to the teenagers who participate in Future Creators about why they like the programme, a couple of recurring themes crop up. Firstly, they work in an informal environment, where they are challenged to be creative and figure things out for themselves, rather than just learning the ‘right’ way to do something off by heart.

Secondly, in learning new skills, these teenagers are using the tools and technologies with which they have grown up: smartphones, tablet computers, digital cameras and MP3 players. Tools which, typically, they are not allowed use in their classrooms at school.

In recent weeks, a lot has been said about social networks, cyberbullying and young people’s access to online tools. The Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications is concluding hearings this week on ‘the abuse of social media’ and is calling for submissions from members of the public on this topic.

In the context of this consultation, we have had the worrying spectacle of national politicians scaremongering and making grossly ill-informed statements about how young people’s use of social media should be curtailed.

More worrying still, a survey by the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) has found 63 per cent of parents believe smartphones and social networks should be banned in schools to curb the problem of online abuse.

A ban will not resolve the issue of bullying

These developments demonstrate a lack of understanding of the opportunities digital tools present: opportunities to engage young people in a more meaningful and relevant way; opportunities to save money for schools and to create efficiencies for teachers; opportunities to ensure Ireland develops an education system that truly guarantees us a place as a global leader in digital and information and communications technology (ICT). To quote Professor Stephen Heppell, a global leader in ICT and learning: “Every turned-off device is potentially a turned-off child”.

Cyberbullying exists, and must not be dismissed. Schools, parents and society must do everything in their power to tackle it – and all other forms of bullying.

As evidenced by the NAPD survey findings, some people believe a ban on social media will curtail cyberbullying. But blanket bans will not resolve this issue.

Bullying existed before computers or the internet were ever heard tell of. So if you ban social media tools in schools, bullies will merely find other mediums through which to harass their victims.

Education must be relevant to reality

Our education system will suffer if schools fail to keep pace with digital developments and become less and less relevant to the reality of their students’ lives.

In every generation, something new comes along to inspire both admiration and fear. In the past, people were awed by the prospect of air travel – but also scared to death at the thoughts of risking their lives in an aeroplane.

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Rural electrification was viewed as liberating and progressive by many – but some stalwarts held the view for years that electricity would cause ruination for all.

Telephones, televisions, medications and even cars have all met with similarly divisive views at one stage or another. Yet, there is widespread agreement that these things have changed our lives for the better.

Schools and parents – and politicians – need to face up to the reality that social media is here to stay. It’s part of our lives, and the lives of our children, and any censorship or bans would be short-sighted and retrospective.

Instead of alienating students who come from a generation where digital technologies and social media are all-pervasive, schools should embrace digital tools to enhance the learning experience. They should develop young people’s digital literacy skills; educate students about cyberbullying; and teach them how to effectively use social media and, in particular, how to protect themselves from negative experiences online. They should also draw on the huge potential offered by social and digital tools to present teachers with creative, innovative ways of responding to the demands of the curriculum.

Huge potential offered by social media and digital tools

Future Creators isn’t the only learning programme in which The Digital Hub is involved. We’re also working with Warrenmount Presentation Secondary School on the Schools Broadband Exemplar Project, aimed at demonstrating how a school can use a 100MB broadband connection to its full potential.

Last week, Ministers Ruairi Quinn and Pat Rabbitte visited Warrenmount. They saw Junior Cert students blog about the novel they’re studying in English. They heard the principal speak about how technology has led to significant cost-savings for the school. And they watched a group of girls who would never previously have had the chance to study higher-level Maths participate in a video link-up with a class in Scoil Bhríde, Clondalkin – a link-up that means they now have the chance to study this subject for their Leaving Cert exam.

This demonstrates the potential offered by social media and digital tools. To overlook this potential would reverse years of progress by The Digital Hub, other agencies, and individual teachers and schools in pioneering the use of technology in the classroom.

Dr Stephen Brennan is Chief Strategy Officer with the Digital Hub Development Agency (DHDA). The DHDA manages The Digital Hub, the Irish government initiative aimed at creating an international centre of excellence for digital content and technology enterprises, which is located in Dublin’s south-west inner city and is home to 70 digital enterprises. Since its inception 10 years ago, the DHDA has delivered digital learning and other community engagement programmes to local schools and residents in Dublin 8, in addition to its work on enterprise development.  Further information is available at www.thedigitalhub.com.

About the author:

Dr Stephen Brennan

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