A contribution on young people and digital technologies

I think it’s great that two people I have a lot of admiration for, David Wilcox and Tim Davies are working together with an organisation I also think is great, Nominet Trust, to explore the potential for new technologies to support young people in engaging economically and socially with their communities. See here for details.
Ahead of the meeting, I thought I’d jot down some thoughts from my own experience.
I think there are three key issues that need to be addressed in this sphere, these are (in no particular order):

  • Harnessing the natural curiosity of young people;
  • Helping young people develop the confidence to produce their own digital material; and
  • Improving the digital skills of youth workers and other professionals who work with young people.

Curiosity – I’ve been capturing and distributing video using mainly mobile phones, and, more recently, the iPad, for a number of years now. Most lately, the Celebration 2.0 project has taken me out of the usual milieu of conferences and community events, into public celebrations. And in those environments, there are generally more young people around. Now, I’ve been video streaming and doing similar things, using the iPad and a mobile phone. I often find that doing this can elicit some interesting reactions. Among adults that can mean suspicion. People who are quite happy to talk to the kind of big cameras that film-makers and TV companies deploy, and pose for the local newspaper photographer, can suddenly get nervous and tetchy when a mobile phone or iPad is pointed in their direction. There are two reasons for this; the first is that many people still are unaware that small, portable devices are capable of producing good quality video, so they don’t believe I can be doing anything serious with it; the other reason is that many remain uneasy about being exposed on the internet, believing all the myths about misuse of content.

On the other hand, the predominant reaction of the young people I’ve encountered in these situations has been curiosity. They are often intensely curious about what I’m doing, want to know how I’m doing it, and what equipment I am using. In the context of the internet, adults often try to dampen down that curiosity, tempering it with, sometimes understandable, concerns about security and privacy. But I think curiosity is generally a good thing, as long as it doesn’t lead into dangerous territories. So, we need to harness this curiosity to develop safe environments in which young people can experiment and push barriers back. I think it is that curiosity which leads to innovations and we need to ensure young people can make the most of it before it is ground out of them by life and over-cautious adults.

Confidence – There’s a lot of twaddle talked about “digital natives” and the Facebook generation. While it is evident that there are more people, including young people, than ever before creating their own media content, enabled by the proliferation of available tools; content creation is still very much a minority activity. Mass-produced TV and Radio are decreasing factors in young people’s lives, and it is being replaced in many cases, by peer-produced content. But, to run away with the idea that all young people are pumping out content to the world, would be to misrepresent what it happening. Most young people are watching material generated by their peers, but, by-and-large, it is a case of large audiences for a small number of producers.

So we need to find ways of building young people’s confidence to create their own content. This will probably be a collective, rather than an individual exercise.

And this moves me on to the third point. The digital skills of the professionals who work with young people. This has long been a concern of mine, since I did some work in 2008 on the digital opportunities available to Looked After Children, which concluded that the lack of digital skills of the social workers, foster carers and others who had daily care of those young people, was a key factor in hampering their educational progress. And I’ve seen plenty of evidence since that, although things may have improved slightly, this issue is still of importance. There are, of course, some really switched on youth workers and social workers, but all too many lack the skills necessary to encourage the young people they work with to flourish in the digital arena. And their discomfort in the digital world causes them to fear what the young people, whose digital skills are often far more advanced than their own, might get up to, and thus to hold them back.

I’m really looking forward to the meeting that David and Tim are convening on Thursday, and I hope this is a positive contribution.

  1. Hello John
    I found it very positive, and relevant too.
    In Edinburgh, there is now the Edinburgh Guarantee for all young people leaving school to receive training, employment or education.
    There is a particular focus on looked after children.
    With regard to possible ways of working in the future, there are Scottish charities e.g. Children 1st, who are considering how to enhance digital skills.
    As this project unfolds, I’m hoping that there might be opportunities to involve Edinburgh and other Scottish locations.
    Looking forward to hearing how Thursday’s meeting goes

  2. This is all very timley, we are very excited to be getting involved in a european project Learning2.0gether, which is all about getting young unemployed people to teach older people in SME’s to use using digital media. The project aims to equip them with the soft skills they need to become trainers. We’re really excited about the potential of this project, and will be keen for bloggers to help us spread the word/tell people about it, once it is up and running early next year.

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