“Only Connect…” E.M Forster
‘Connectivity’ is a significant buzzword. Governments tempt us with ‘ high speed broadband connections’ as if somehow this will make all our dreams come true and our anxieties vanish. Our kids will, apparently, learn more quickly and, perhaps, the safe future we wish for them might magically appear. But connectivity is more than about the speed of your broadband – its not speed that matters but the quality of that connection between individuals and groups.
Connections between students sometimes as illusory as the body types their avatars depict. Just because you ‘Friend’ someone does that make them your friend? Yes, they have Facebook and Twitter (Does anyone use MySpace anymore?) and can fill in fields about their likes, dislikes and interests but just how much Narcissism is good for anyone? It certainly wasn’t much good for Narcissus. Social Networking, ironically, is more about defining, marketing and celebrating Self than it is about finding other people that one can truly connect with.
By ‘connect’ I don’t mean the “I like this, do you?” discourse that you find in the social networks young people inhabit. That is as sophisticated as many a playground conversation. Like the cardgame Snap, in playground chats kids throw down their opinions and memories for others to affirm or reject. The topic under discussion is rarely the object up for scrutiny, rather it is the speaker and their status that is foremost – at least in the speaker’s mind. It is similar online, kids post pictures for others to comment upon, seeking affirmation to prove their worth. It’s no surprise that some social commentators are calling this the iGeneration.
These sorts of interactions are relatively innocuous, but it can be far worse. Young people can be dangerously mean to each other. Last year alone ACMA’s (Australian Communications and Media Authority) helpline was the recipient of 600 calls from kids who had suicidal thoughts following instances of cyberbullying. Susan McClean, a cybersafety activist, says that the ‘Internet is the new toilet door’ and that now, due to emerging social technologies, the bully follows you into the privacy of your own bedroom. In the case of 17 year old Allem Halkic (as reported on Four Corners) such repeated bullying contributed to his suicide.
So, are we to be techno luddites and ban the ‘evils’ of the Internet? Is Facebook this decade’s ‘Reefer Madness’, ‘Communism’ or ‘Teen Pregnancy’? Look, even if we tried, kids would find a way to get what they want as did some of us when we were their age. And they are already there whether we know it or not. KZero, a consulting group who researches/monitor’s Virtual Worlds indicates that, worldwide, 57 million kids under 10 are exploring virtual worlds already. That number leaps to 155 million for young people aged 10-20. ACMA’s data is closer to home and just as interesting, if not quite so large. Of young people aged 14-17 –
- 50% use chat rooms and Instant Messaging regularly
- 22% are connected through Social Networking
- 22% contribute to or read blogs
- 7.4% are involved in virtual worlds and online communities associated with them.
Just what delightful places are our kids exploring? Well, 19 million (worldwide) are learning the deep significance of fashion choices on one’s level of ‘Hotness’ in a place called ‘Barbie Girls.’ This is just one of the hundreds of corporate sponsored virtual worlds opening their portals to kids.
My questions are –
- What values are young people learning in those spaces?
- What connections are they making?
- Are they just affirming themselves or is there the possibility of altruistic endeavour?
- Can kids truly ‘connect’ when it is not about them but about the act of meeting another?
These questions have guided the formulation of my Churchill Fellowship proposal called ‘iCare’. More on that, next time.