Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense, but the past perfect! ~Owens Lee Pomeroy
On Friday 10 September I attended the Generation Next conference at the University of New South Wales, ostensibly for the session on Cyberbullying delivered by Susan McLean. The day was aimed at teachers, youth workers and health care professionals who work with children and young people, with the intent of bringing us all up to date on recent data and developments. Though there were some brief instances of how to lead young people forward, for the most part, the day was an exploration of the dark places that some, and I emphasise some, young people inhabit.
What follows are some brief notes on some of the sessions; key points, personal observations and questions that arose.
About the Mental Health and Wellbeing of Young people with Dr Ramesh Manocha
The learned and entertaining Dr Manocha defined what he called ‘A Crisis of Consciousness’ citing research into growing rates of mental illness which he attempted to argue was due to rapid societal change. He argued that contemporary consumerist, permissive culture emphasises an ‘Anything, Anytime, Anywhere’ values system that young people are not cognitively or emotionally mature enough to negotiate or critique effectively. He put forward the argument that the social/cultural environment was one that added extra stressors to the lives of young people – peer pressure, bullying, increased sexualisation and violence that was adversely affecting their mental health.
Question – Hasn’t it always been the case for older generations to bemoan the developments in youth/mainstream culture that seem to undermine their own values systems?
Alcohol and Other drugs – Current issues with Paul Dillon
In what could have been a series of Motherhood statements on why drugs are bad, Paul Dillon gave an impressively balanced presentation that aimed at clarifying some of our misconceptions about drug usage in the country, misconceptions that are manipulated by the media in order to create an environment of fear. What was most striking was the way in which he inverted statistics in his graphs to highlight the number of students who are successfully NOT taking drugs. These he uses in schools to validate the choices the majority of young people are taking in abstaining. He also clarified the issue of caffeine in our culture and in energy drinks. Apparently there is more in our morning freshly ground coffees than in the most common brands.
Tom Young – Beyond Blue Youth Ambassador
In a brief but affecting recount of his life journey, Tom spoke of being burdened by excessive anxiety and the steps he took to manage it. A young role-model to everyone who can empathise with intense feelings of unhappiness despite evidence to the contrary.
Depression and Anxiety in Young People with Dr Michael Carr-Greg
- Are you tackling the tasks of Adolescence? Identity issues, developing freedom from parental influences…
- What is your child’s ‘cognitive map’? What is your child’s self-talk?
- Do your children have a track record of keeping themselves safe?
- Do they hang out with safe kids?
- Do they have a sensation seeking temperament?
Sexualisation, Commercialism and the Media – ‘Girls Too Sexy, Too Soon’ by Melinda Tankard-Reist
The Resilience Donut by Lyn Worsely
In response to the previous speakers, Lyn commented that if we look at the risk factors to young people alone, we might ignore the outcomes that are fine and lose the opportunity to bolster strengths where they already exist. Her main argument was based around what builds resilience in young people – what are the tipping points and the turning points. She defined resiience as-
- the ability to face, overcome and be strengthened by adversities
- it is a life-long changeable process of development
- the ability to navigate and negotiate strategies to cope with life
- an inoculation against stress which ensures quality of life
The Resilience Donut is a Visual Aid to assist people of any age to take a diagnostic review of their life and ascertain areas of strength and weakness in the support structures. She has defined 7 Key Factors.
- Parent Factor – Resilient kids have parents that have a 50/50 balance of discipline and openness.
- Skill Factor – the child has skills in a particularly field that is recognised by a trusted adult.
- Family and Identity Factor – coming together as a family group that has positive expectations and may have come through difficult times together.
- Education Factor – child feels valued by teachers who connect with them.
- Peer Factor – not necessarily harmonious as conflict can help develop necessary skills
- Community Factor – adults outside the family connect in an environment of confidence and faith.
- Money Factor- learn to give and take
Whereas one might expect to focus on the deficits, the approach is to bolster and further develop the strengths – to look at what is actually working for the child already. Children at risk are those who have three or more factors under threat so lets look to that which is already strong and support it to be even stronger.
Cybersafety and Cyberbullying by Susan McLean
As expected, Susan McLean have us a ‘Reds Under the Bed’ presentation on the nasty, evil dangers of technology that many had apparently not heard before. For someone familiar with the territory of fear covered by media commentators, it was a great disappointment to have nothing new shared with us. It is true what she says, we are on public display when we use technology so we need to have a comprehensive curriculum that addresses cybersafety but not, in my opinion, one that solely focusses on the negative impacts of social technologies.
She shared some useful, if disturbing statistics –
- 50% kids on America have been cyberbullied
- compared with 30% in Australia
- 69% of kids aged 13-19 have sent sexual images of themselves to a boyfriend/girlfriend
- 79% in older age groups (!)
Susan presented some potentially useful strategies to protect young people online-
- Never be angry when a young person shares a bullying experience with you
- save and store the evidence
- delete and block bullies from friends lists
- never respond to a cyberbully
- use the report abuse button
- change passwords frequently
- have downtime away from technology altogether
- shoulder surf with your kids
Lastly, she suggests that parents implement five Top Tips
- Never allow computers, internet capable phones in the bedroom
- Have a ‘Family Online’ contract for all family members
- Have conversations about computer useage
- Know about the technology that is being used by all
- Set up Filtering software on all computers.
Susan’s voice is an important one but her fear based rhetoric, loud as it is, does not address the fundamental need to present alternative ways to connect online. Her approach is only part of the solution. The only positively worded remark she made in her presentation was this, ‘Your school must embrace cyberspace as the valuable tool it is not the problem that it may become.’ And even that is framed in the negative! So, how exactly is it a valuable tool to create connections rather than destroy them? This is, I suppose, what my Churchill Fellowship is based upon.
Whilst much of the conference was stimulating, challenging and occasionally disturbing, I left the day with the overall impression that the attitude of the presenters was that the best way to support and serve youth was for them to be whisked back to the past where they would obviously be much happier. There, through our discerning rose-coloured glasses, there are no bullies – it is a place of peace and joy – the supportive village atmosphere is experienced by all. Back in the magical land of ‘Then’, children had manners and knew to look you in the eye when they were speaking to you. And most important of all, there was no evil child molesting Internet lurking the the bedrooms of our precious Innocents.
With the noteable exception of Paul Dillon and Lyn Worsley, the predominant discourse was one of Fear. Ironically, Generation Next was a timewarp where the 30+ audience ‘s nostalgia for an idealised childhood (which many may never have actually experienced) was emphatically affirmed by graphs, data, irritatingly diverse Powerpoint slideshow transitions and empassioned quotes from grieving mothers. We were encouraged to pack great reams of Fear into our sample bags that were already stuffed with stress balls and pens. Yearning for security is based on a fallacy – there is no ultimate state of security because life is an intricate web of conditions that shift and change with alarming regularity. Helen Keller communicated the dangers of security far more effectively than I.
I thank the Generation Next team for presenting their view of the future… sorry, ‘A’ future where we react from fear of what might become. I prefer to select a different future, a ‘daring adventure’ in which we invest attention in building upon positive connections of today that may support a more collaborative future.
Are you willing to take the risk with me?