“Do we know how important social media is to young people?”
I was recently attending an Internet safety conference in Brussels and one of the youth representatives put up his hand and asked the speaker: “You’ve given a lot of advice in your speech about how adults can protect children online. Do you have any advice for young people who want to talk to adults but don’t want to be made to feel stupid?” I was really struck by this raw, unapologetic question in such a public forum. And it isn’t the first time I’ve heard it. When I filmed Inimini (in the video above) she described the judgments often made about her generation (often referred to as “Gen Z”) and the destructive stereotypes that characterize young people as “wasting away online.” In our discussions, both on and off camera, I got the sense that, too often, she has felt belittled by her elders simply by virtue of the fact that she belongs to a generation that has grown up with smart phones and Internet. After all, living in and coming of age with one’s generation, is something we all must do. We don’t have a choice in the matter.
These conversations remind me to resist describing, judging or decoding the behaviour of children and teens solely based on my sketchy understanding of the communication platforms they use (No, I don’t know all the ins and outs of Snapchat).
Thinking about the reaction of Inimini and the young man in the conference (as well as many others to whom I have talked), I’m left with a lot of uneasy questions: do some young people feel stigmatized or even blamed for having grown up with the digital communication tools that their parents have put into their hands? Can we, as adults, have double standards when it comes to our use of the very same technology? And does it really help the quality of our cultural debate when we use broad simplifications to stereotype an entire generation and its interaction with digital communication tools? How do these generational attitudes affect the way we approach children in our own homes or students in our classrooms? Do they help or hinder our ability to communicate and connect with them?
As someone who works on the ground with young people, I’m becoming more and more wary of terminology (e.g. digital natives vs digital immigrants) or apocalyptic arguments (e.g. screens are destroying a generation) that separate us or insist on irreconcilable differences between generational experiences and use of digital communication. It worries me because I think it then becomes more culturally acceptable for a parent or educator to just say: “I don’t understand their technology, therefore I don’t understand my child or my student.” Isn’t that a missed opportunity?
As Inimini says: “We do want to reach out to our older peers but an environment gets created where we feel like we can’t do that.”
In the early years of teaching media camps, I would sometimes ask students if they would like to share their favourite Youtubers with the class. We would watch clips selected by the students (with my input to ensure the media was safe for the group to watch) and then just talk. I asked questions and the children would explain who the Youtubers were and generally orientate me. Students enthusiastically participated. I was, in fact, a little surprised at how much time and energy the children gave to these classes. I tried it at home with my own children (then 12 and 9 years of age). Same reaction. In the following ten years working with students in my media camps, I’ve never had a student not want to share some aspect of their Youtube/online life. Same goes for my children. This taught me that: Many children want and need to share their media with adults.
By sharing media, they are, in fact, revealing something about themselves. But sharing a favourite Youtuber, video, gif or gaming environment with an adult might sometimes feel like risky business. It can open that child up to comments, criticisms, ridicule, rejection, perhaps even punishment. It makes me wonder how many quietly loaded moments have passed by with my own children without me even noticing. No, I still don’t always manage to keep my mouth shut.
What if we don’t like what we see? What if we feel threatened, angry, ashamed, confused, or embarrassed by the media coming from our child’s social media feeds? What if it confronts our values or ideas of social decency? What if it looks and sounds dangerous? What if the tone of the media totally contradicts the image we have of that child’s personality? Do we want the media to reflect who we think our child is? How polite or smart should it be? Do we understand what we are seeing?
And this has got me thinking: if we, as parents and educators, can’t tolerate the media our children and students are consuming – especially when it confronts us – how on earth are we going to interact with and guide our younger generation? I remember watching a video from my son’s feed featuring the Youtuber KSI as he accosted girls in the street asking them obscene questions about their sex lives. I didn’t like it. As KSI laughed about the long line of women he had bedded and then rejected, I didn’t like it. But something in that media was speaking to my 14 year-old son – even if it was just a chance to exercise cynical voyeurism, a kind of “laugh out loud” at this guy’s crazy antics. This made me realize that not only did I need to stick with the media long enough to understand the broader context of its design (repeated, short, prank cycles to get views and reinforce a persona, all incentivised by Youtube’s business model and testosterone culture) but also to understand how my son was seeing the media: what did he think of the way the media was put together, the attitudes towards women, KSI’s persona and the line between pranking and invasion of privacy? And then the hard part: to let my son continue watching it. Because I had no power to close the door and disinvite KSI into my home. He was sitting in my son’s pocket on his Youtube feed.
This could have caused considerable conflict between us (ranging from me lunging for his phone to just walking away with the idea that my son was clueless) had it not been for our conversation which helped me understand that my son was, indeed, quite capable of reflecting on what he was watching and able to see many of the issues I had pointed out – whether he disagreed with me or not. In fact, throughout that conversation and subsequent ones, I learned that my son watched a lot of media that dealt with social justice issues: a fact I wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t talked about the very things I felt uncomfortable with in KSI’s content (at least the content I had been exposed to). The conversation gave me access to a side of my son I had no idea existed, helped me understand my son and his Youtuber in a broader context and gave me new ways to share media with him.
I filmed JP when she was sixteen (see video above). Her words often ring in my ears when young people share their media with me: “Embrace your child’s media.”
Thank you JP. Oh, yes, and thank you KSI.
Over the last decade, I have been running media literacy classes in a wide variety of schools and educational programmes. I teach parents, educators and students how to make media, assess it, and use it responsibly. The students range from 7-17 years of age. I’ve learned the most from them. One of the key lessons they’ve taught me is that: Young people are emotionally invested in their media.
This isn’t a throw away point. Its crucial. Because if we really understand that, then we might approach discussions about media with our children a little differently. It makes sense when you think about it. Media touches every part of their daily lives. It is structurally integrated into their worlds at school and often, at home. Social media tools allow them to connect, collaborate, work, learn, play, support, fight, prank, hate, hurt, love, obsess, confess, perform, hide, accuse, make up, etc.. – everything that humans do in their daily interactions with each other. And young people are no exception. In fact, they are just starting to explore the bigger world and search for their place within it. Do we remember what that was like?
Parents often express to me their worries about screen time, addiction, lack of reading, or face-to-face socialising, predators, pranking, violent or sexual online content, social isolation, immediate gratification, sedentary lifestyles and a host of other issues. This is often the frame of mind I encounter when I talk to parents or teachers. And yes, these are concerns – I am a parent too. But it seems to me, the discussions often frame our children’s use of social media from a hierarchical place in which we privilege our adult concerns and fears and forget that our children are dealing with a complex array of daily human interactions that might not always be visible in our field of “attention”. And this has got me thinking: are we missing opportunities to nurture and engage our children by relating to their media? Especially given that it encompasses things they are so emotionally tied to?
A few years ago, I decided to start documenting young people in order to learn more about how they experienced childhood, screens, parents and school. I’m a filmmaker so I picked up my camera and began interviewing children ranging from 9-17 years of age. I filmed children with whom I had worked for many years and whose parents I knew well. I’m also a parent of two wonderful teenagers so I filmed them and many of their friends.
The interviews were more like regular conversations – the kinds we would have in class or at home. The children decided what they wanted to talk about. I would then film as we talked. Afterwards, I cut clips from the interviews and had both parents and children “green light” the content. All the children chose random usernames which is their identity for this project, which I call “Friends Like Me”.
In this blog, I aim to share what I’m learning from children with parents and educators because I have been blown away by so much of what the children have to say. I really and truly believe that by listening to them, we can build a more nuanced, gentle, intergenerational dialogue about the fact that we are ALL living in a media saturated culture and we are ALL looking for balance, meaning and connection. Wouldn’t it be amazing, if we could pull resources and do this together?
Friends Like Me Project ©2018