Here in England hardly a week goes by when there not some horror story involving the internet. Sometimes regretting the fact that their child advertised a birthday party on Facebook with the result that gatecrashers ended up trashing their home. Sometimes, some professor or other declares that the internet is bad for you. More often than not, it's a celebrity who has a book to sell who is complaining that kids don't socialise anymore because they are too busy meeting their friends on Facebook (which I thought was socialising, but what do I know?) Sometimes it's even worse, with a story about a child who has taken their own life because of cyberbullying.
I daresay the same kind of stories are cropping up all the time in the States. But the fact of the matter is that the internet is not going away, and Ofcom, the British Office of Communications, has just published some research that shows that the amount of time that people aged 16 and above spend online has doubled since 2005.
Now, I think this research is interesting because, if you think about it, people aged 16 and over are mostly adults. So when you hear people bemoaning the fact that "kids spend all the time glued to a screen", you might invite them to reflect on the fact that so do adults! Perhaps even more so.
The research I've quoted comes from England, as I said, but it's not difficult to find similar kinds of statistics in the USA. For example, take a look at this article published by Pew last year, predicting what digital life will look like in 2025. Obviously, it's bound to be wrong in parts – predictions usually are – but it's revealing to see where the writer is coming from. The very first point, for example, is that the internet will become more like electricity in people's lives.
And that's an interesting point in itself, because for years now I, and others like me, have been telling school Principals that they should regard the school's technology infrastructure, such as networking and wi-fi capability, in the same way that they regard electricity and water. In other words, it's not a luxury, it's a utility, and one that we cannot realistically live without.
So, on to the subject of online safety. If you think of access to the internet as being like access to electricity, you don't stop people from using it, you show them how to use it safely. Did you catch the word I used? Show, not just tell. Adults – not only teachers but parents, public commentators and Jo Public – have to model good behaviour on the internet. Many adults don't. The recent election in Britain was useful in showing that there are some people who cannot accept that others have a different political viewpoint. Rather than try to argue their case, they resort to insults and even threats. Their behaviour as adults in effect legitimises the mirroring of such behaviour by kids.
Like I said, the internet ain't going away. We need to keep kids safe by using filtering, walled gardens, and other technical solutions where appropriate. But we also need to recognise that simply banning the use of smartphone, or wailing about how much time youngsters spend online these days, will achieve little or nothing on their own. We also need to be mindful of the implicit message we adults give to young people when we spend much of our time online, and when we use the internet to treat other people badly.
About Terry Freedman
Terry Freedman is an independent educational ICT and Computing consultant in England. He publishes the ICT in Education website at www.ictineducation.org.