In the opening lines of his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker establishes that “believe it or not – and many people do not – violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence”1.
He then reaches the conclusion that “no matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions”.
I wonder to what extent we are seeing a similar effect when we scrutinise the kind of discourse that surrounds the use of technology by children. The very name e-safety conjures a negative discourse in which we focus on the dangerous aspects of using technology, generally communications technology, and ignore the huge potential technology can offer education. As a result, very often schools’ provision of e-safety advice is coloured by the perception that dangers lurk only a click away.
Whist this may seem to be true a priori, in most cases, adults and children alike manage to make perfectly good and appropriate use of technology without any problems. However, as Pinker discovered in his study of the our perception of the levels of violence, cases of something-terrible-happenned-because-of-technology are quick to hit the headlines, whilst cases in which technology is successfully used to support teaching and learning are seldom, if ever, featured among our daily narrative of catastrophes, accidents and disasters.
A short history of misaprehension
Prior to the introduction of pillar boxes, sending and receiving mail used to be a very public affair. Senders had to take their letters in person to a receiver at a Receiving House or to a Turnpike House where their mail waited to be picked up by the Royal Mail coach. Receiving a letter was the same procedure in reverse. Who was posting or receiving mail was therefore very public knowledge.
When the first pillar boxes were introduced in 1850s, many worried that here was a way in which letters could be sent anonymously by slipping them surreptitiously into the newfangled pillar boxes. The contemporaneous introduction of the Uniform Penny Post, complete with postman deliveries, ensured that receiving mail became a simplified, but also a private business2.
Many voiced concerns about the consequences of allowing the public to send letters anonymously and cheaply and nobody would know who was writing to whom and for what mischievous purpose. This clearly couldn’t add to the greater good. However, as we now know, the ensuing revolution in interpersonal communication heralded, not the collapse of civilisation, as some had feared, but the dawn of a new era of democratised transmission of information.
In the early 20th century, early motor cars were often boycotted in rural areas of the USA because they “posed a danger to stock, horse drawn traffic and even crops”3. In some states cars were forbidden to drive faster than a man’s walking pace, in others a man waving a flag had to precede the car on foot in order to warn other road users that a motorcar was approaching.
In a more recent example of fear and misapprehension, John Birt, former director general of the BBC, remembers how when he first started considering using the internet as a broadcast medium, the move was met with formidable opposition by the different departments within the BBC4 who feared that the new medium would clash with and even end traditional broadcasting. However, Birt pressed ahead with his reforms and, with innovations such as the iPlayer and making programmes available as podcasts, the BBC was able to reach new audiences, changing viewing and listening habits forever as a result4.
Every time a new technology begins to disrupt the status quo, loud alarm bells ring in society. But is such alarm warranted? Are some of the assumptions we make about the internet, its use and its content accurate reflections of reality?
What about all the inappropriate content?
There is no doubt that there is a considerable amount of inappropriate content on the internet. Interestingly, however, exactly how much is another example of how we can assume the worst. When I first started taking an interest in using the internet to support the teaching and learning that went on in my classroom, numerous voices warned me that I should be very careful, as most of the internet, apparently, was porn. Estimates varied, anywhere between 80% and 40% of websites on the internet was of a pornographic nature. However, the fact is that the actual percentage of websites that contain porn is around 4%, perhaps even less5. Of course, if you want to find porn, you will.
Unless you are in a school. Schools are, by and large, protected by robust and effective systems that filter out such content. If a child deliberately bypasses the systems to find pornographic material, how is this different from the child that smuggled a dirty mag on to the school premises when the internet didn’t exist? This is clearly a behaviour problem, not a technology one.
What about sexual predation?
The phrase stranger-danger is one that I hear often in connection with e-safety as we know it in schools. It’s catchy and snappy. It’s also wrong. According to US department of Justice6 93% of physical sexual abuse cases in the States (I couldn’t find reliable UK figures, though I have no reason to believe they would be too dissimilar) are perpetrated by people the children already know, a whopping 47% of children sexual abuse cases in the States are perpetrated by the children’s own family members. So much for stranger-danger.
The percentage of children who are actually sexually abused as a result of online solicitation is 0.7%, which is almost statistically insignificant. (There is no percentage actually given, I worked this out from the fact that there were 129 cases of internet-initiated sex crimes in a total of 1.8 million cases of sexual assault). Another interesting fact is that most of the sexual solicitation that goes on in social networking sites, which these days is more likely to take the guise of sexting, does not occur between deviant adults and children, but rather between children and other children.
With this in mind, is it too far-fetched to conclude that we have been getting it wrong? Whilst the current e-safety narrative fits perfectly with our assumptions about stranger-danger, when you compare it to what actually goes on the advice we are giving children may be woefully inadequate.
What’s wrong with online relationships?
If we are to take the stranger-danger inspired advice to its logical outcome, we should say to students that they should not speak with anyone they don’t actually know. Yet I don’t know anyone – not one person – who uses online means of communication and has met in person everybody they are in contact with through blogs or social networks. On a daily basis I dialogue with people I don’t actually know. And I learn and reflect and generally improve as a person as a result of it.
We all do this. Is it fair therefore, or indeed fruitful and even scrupulous, to tell our our students – for whom being online and participating in the social media environment are a by-product of living in the developed world7 – to behave in a way that we ourselves are unable to model?
As Simon Finch, from the Northern Grid for Learning, puts it “telling young people not to talk to strangers on the web is no more helpful than ‘you must never go into the park’”. What if we need to redefine and reexamine the nature of online relationships? Are there new kinds of relationships we should be teaching our students about? Are there new kinds of relationships we should be encouraging our students to establish?
What about cyber-bullying?
This one’s easy. There’s no such thing as cyber-bullying. There’s bullying; deal with it as such.
When is face to face best?
The facile answer is always. In fact, it isn’t always. It’s sometimes. The main reason schools give to ban the use of mobile technologies (sigh) is that they want to promote an environment in which face to face communication is encouraged. To me this is based on a number of shaky assumptions. Firstly it assumes that pupils will enter a trance like state in which they will stare at a screen forever ignore the physical world around them. This simply does’t happen in my experience. Kids use on online communication as well as face to face communication, not instead of. Secondly, they assume that face to face interaction trumps any other kind of interaction all the time. Only it doesn’t.
Let me explore this last point further. An initial consideration is that face to face interaction is not always possible, therefore some kind of interaction may be preferable to no interaction at all. Furthermore, there are occasions in which online interaction is preferable. Studies have shown that asynchronous online communication, say in through a blog’s comment thread or a forum, for example, is very beneficial as it allows for greater reflection and engages the reader/writer in deep thinking and consideration. In addition, telephone conversations can sometimes be preferable to face to face conversations, for a variety of reasons, as are emails or text messages. That’s why we send so many.
So, telling our students that face to face communication is what we should always aspire to is, at best, disingenuous (incompetent at worst), as there are clearly occasions in which other kinds of communication are preferable. So, what are we doing to teach our students to use these means of communication appropriately? How do we expect our students to engage in reasoned, polite and productive asynchronous dialogue if we do not provide opportunities in which it can happen for academic purposes? Why do we then throw the book at them when they get it wrong, when it is our fault that we didn’t teach them any better?
A curious statement of belief that I hear often is that the art of communication is dying, this at a time in history when we are communicating with each other at a scale unprecedented at any other time in human history. I wonder what Pinker makes of that.
Please feel free to leave your two-penneth and shoot me down if there are any flaws in my arguments or if there is anything I’m overlooking. I feel is tremendously important we get this right.
- PINKER S (2011) The better angels of our nature, London:Penguin ↩
- BBC, The people’s post – a narrative history of the Post Office ↩
- Horseless Carriage Days (2006) Retrieved March 10, 2012 ↩
- BIRT, J. (2012) interviewed in “The Media Show”. Broadcast on March 7, 2012 ↩
- WARD M (2013) Web porn: Just how much is there? ↩
- US Department of Justice, Facts, Myths and Statistics ↩
- SHIRKY, C (2010) Cognitive Surplus, London:Penguin ↩