Learning on the Net (2). Between preventive and educational action

We talk about the dependence that can arise from the abuse of networks by teenagers, and problems linked to its relational aspects.

Illustration from String Figures and How to Make Them, by Caroline Furness Jayne (1906).

Illustration from String Figures and How to Make Them, by Caroline Furness Jayne (1906). Source: Wikipedia.

There is some cause for concern about the use of the Web 2.0 environment by teenagers and young people. Even though its potential and its advantages are beyond doubt, certain cases over the last few years have set alarm bells ringing about the need for a preventive discourse. In our last post we contextualised teenage use of social networks from the theoretical point of view; now, we focus on two key issues: the dependence that can arise from the abuse of networks, and problems linked to its relational aspects.

Ten years ago, television stations around the world broadcast a documentary entitled The Mystery of the Missing Millions, which explored the Japanese phenomenon of ‘Hikikomoris’: Asian teenagers and young people whose Internet addiction was leading them to lock themselves in their rooms for long periods of time so that they could be always connected. Not long after, media outlets in Catalonia began to question whether a similar situation existed closer to home. A few years ago we were alarmed by 15-year-old Amanda Todd’s suicide and her farewell video on YouTube, and ever since then we have seen a constant trickle of teenagers claiming to have been victims of online harassment. These tragic events have triggered a string of news stories and warnings about the risks of certain Internet-related practices.

This text does not aim to explore the reasons behind these desperate situations, or to examine why certain states of isolation make it impossible to deal with certain situations. Similarly, it is not intended to magnify warnings about the dangers of the net, which simply intensify our adult anxieties, when they should actually lead us to reflect and force us to take a critical approach. Basically, we need to understand that the Internet has been the means (but not the end) by which some people have had problems managing it, whether as ‘victims’ or not. As such, the idea of this text is to put forward a series of ideas that can become a basis for reflection, basically focusing on two issues:

1. For many teenagers and young people, the new ways of relating to others and presenting ourselves to the world that the Internet has made possible are a source of fun and enjoyment, but they also entail problems. Cyberbullying (online bullying by classmates, friends, etc.), sexting (sending messages with sexual content), grooming (cyberharassment involving minors)… are terms that are increasingly used in the media, but they also need a certain accompaniment and considered explanation. Having certain guidelines and being aware of some of the risks can help us to manage all of these issues better.

Harassment in technological contexts is a relatively new phenomenon in our society. The expansion of the civil use of the Internet over the past two decades –and its consolidation in our own– has led to major changes in the way we relate to each other. In the case of teenagers, there have been significant changes in forms of socialising and interaction. And these changes, as well as the advent of smartphones and the social media boom, have led to an increase in reported cases of relational problems among school-aged teenagers.

Many of these new forms of interrelating are seen as a problem by concerned adults, and there is a lot of discussion around the problem of cyberbullying. Cowie (2013) talks about the ‘moral panic’ that exists in relation to these types of situations, and there have been an increasing number of academic studies on the phenomenon of cyberbullying in the last fifteen years. Most of these studies begin by conceptualising the problem from the perspective of the traditional concept of harassment. The first person to talk about ‘bullying’ was Olweus (1989), who defined it as “physical and/or psychological abuse perpetrated by one student against another who has been chosen as the victim of repeated attacks. This recurring and deliberate action places the victim in positions that he or she has difficulty defending him or herself in. The ongoing nature of these interaction has strong negative effects on the victims: lower self-esteem, anxiety, and even depression, and also has a negative influence on their integration into the school environment and on the normal progression of the learning process.” As for the technological version, Avilés (2009) says that “cyberbullying can be said to exist when an individual is the target of aggressions (threats, insults, ridicule, extortion, password theft, identity theft, social vacuum…) that he or she repeatedly receives on mobile or virtual devices, in the form of text or voice messages, still or moving images, and so on, which are intended to undermine his or her self-esteem and personal dignity and damage his/her social status, leading to psychological victimisation, emotional stress, and social rejection.’

In Spain, the data available on this situation is relatively vague. The studies that have been carried out conclude that between 4% and 6% of school students are subject to systematic cyberbullying, with considerable gender differences: the victims are usually girls, while the bullies are mostly boys (Avilés, 2009).

Hikikomori , Hiasuki, 2004.

Hikikomori , Hiasuki, 2004. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

2. At the same time, there is also the issue of addiction or overuse of the Internet. Even though the Spanish situation differs from many examples given in studies, which are drawn from the Asian context (such as Hikikomoris for example), it is important to understand that some types of internet use can lead to problems such as dependence or the inability to control one’s use. Researchers have developed a series of indicators and guidelines that can help us to detect problems and work on them, and we should keep these in mind rather than falling into reductionism. If there’s one thing that the international scientific community agrees on, it is the fact that these problems should be seen as a symptom of an underlying problem, and not its cause. In other words, we become hooked on our mobile phone or online relationships in order to fill other needs, which, once again, often have to do with self-identity and the social environment. Many studies suggest that there is a correlation between people who end up using screens problematically and people with symptoms of anxiety and emotional problems. In other words: aspects such as feeling sad, depressed or lonely, or being very nervous in social situations, are risk factors that have to be taken into account.

Internet addiction is a complex issue. While it is true that there are numerous examples of problematic use, there is a lack of consensus on what constitutes internet use that meets the criteria of an addiction. In fact, even though the latest version of the DSM-5 Diagnostic Manual covers aspects related to the problematic use of digital technology, it does not address the phenomenon as a whole: for example, it does not classify certain kinds of uses of social media, probably because of the extremely fast pace at which they appear and change.

The main debate revolves around whether these problems are the cause or the symptom of an underlying disorder. In the case of the first hypothesis (by which Internet addiction can be classed as a disorder in its own right), ‘the Internet’ broadly speaking would be a causal element for the emergence of certain problems (Young, 1997; Muñoz-Rivas, Fernández and Gámez-Guadix, 2010, Griffiths, 2010). In the second case (by which there is an underlying disorder that leads to problematic use), internet addiction would be a symptom of another psychopathology or mental health problem that predates it (Carbonell, Fuster, Chamarro and Oberts, 2012).

Recent studies (Bernadi, 2010) have found that the prevalence of this problem is low, but difficult to estimate with precision in the West (Europe and the USA): somewhere around 0.3% to 0.07%. Meanwhile, studies carried out in Japan and China, countries in which social media and online games have a much stronger presence, place the figure at 5%.

Between preventive and educational action

As educators, this situation opens up a whole world of possibilities for intervention that require serious reflection and a position arrived at by consensus. Fortunately, familiar terms like cooperative work, participation, horizontality, and so on, reappear in this context, although perhaps in a different sense to what we are accustomed to, a fact that we need to keep in mind and adjust for. We will be able to make progress along this path as we experiment and participate in this environment. The challenge of adapting to the technological revolution is not just about acquiring, using and learning the new information and communication tools, but above all about coming to terms with the new categories that structure this new scenario:

  • Forms of relating that extend far beyond normal working hours and situations, in a context of constant interconnection within a network made up of different agents;
  • Abundant information, which is complementary in the physical and digital realms;
  • Information that generates knowledge through experimentation, participation, production and collaborative creation.

Unlike other phenomena that we may have to deal with in different contexts, in this case it makes no sense to take a position of resistance, or to be non-critical. On the contrary: today, we are at a point when we need to think about ethics on the net, and to explore the new realities that we are coming across in our professional practice. We are being forced to rethink everything. We need to begin by questioning the basics: how can we use these new technologies to improve educational accompaniment of children and young people? Are educators necessary in the digital world? Should we use the same tools/profiles in our professional work and in our everyday life as citizens? How can we emphasise and promote the many good practices that exist? What discourse should we promote to prevent problematic use? Meanwhile, professionals with a more critical view of new technologies can consider the more theoretical aspects: what will be the longer term effects of so much hyperconnectivity and hypervirtuality? How can we help to build online communities? Are the efficiency and immediacy of the net counterproductive in the mid to long term? Are we heading towards a faster society, with more proximity, but less and less physical contact?

We need serious reflection, at a global level, so that we can learn to coexist with this new reality, based on a recognition that the digital revolution is here stay and that we are now at the experimental stage. We have to be very careful about causing undue alarm, which can end up having a pull effect: the dangers get talked about, misinformation prevails, and certain discourses end up becoming institutionalised and shaping the modus operandi of our opinions as a society.

Notes for preventative intervention

1. We need to stop and think about the messages we want to transmit in discourses that are intended for preventive purposes:

  • Should our priority be to supervise the use of mobiles and to set controls – which often prove impossible to enforce – or to work on the basis of a healthy coexistence and autonomy? Some educational centres have implemented projects that aim to integrate mobile phones as educational tools. We need to find a balance between educational use and ‘recreational’ or relational use. Positive experiences should help us to develop complex, positive uses that set up models based on good practices.
  • Do we need to start banning certain things at certain ages, or help young people to gradually acquire responsibilities? In the educational field, we have a tendency to apply rules and regulations to control behaviour in response to any new technological innovations that may put us in a position of conflict or ‘inequality’ in relation to the students or young people. We use legal excuses to justify certain forms of behaviour, and this is an inappropriate response in education. It isn’t realistic to think that children and teenagers will stick to the age restrictions to open Facebook accounts (minimum 14 years old) or use Whatsapp (minimum 16 years old). Particularly because children often start to use these applications when the influential adults in their lives ask them to or want them to. It makes more sense to participate in these environments by accompanying them, by observing and detecting inappropriate patterns of use for their age: as an adult teaching a high school class of young teenagers, it is better to have a Facebook presence (as the majority of students will, regardless of the age limits set out in the conditions of use) than to just tell them that it is illegal for them to use it. Full stop.
  • Should we tell them to disconnect at night, or teach them that they don’t need to be interacting 24 hours a day? One aspect that we need to work on is helping young people to find moments when they can be offline: to teach them to avoid hyperconnectivity, even if we do so from a teenage perspective. In other words, we should emphasise the message that ‘you don’t need to reply to a Whatsapp at 2 am if you’re asleep’ rather than ‘turn off your mobile when you sleep’. And: ‘it’s no big deal if you don’t look at your mobile on Sundays and you do other things instead’.

2. Prudence, or even informality, can also deliver results. In other words, taking care of conflicts individually or as a group when they come up, avoiding useless drama or generalisations, being careful to work with all those who directly or indirectly participate or are affected, and working in an atmosphere of relative calm. While it is true that certain examples of difficult situations can help us to think about the issues involved, there’s no need to use dramatic headlines to imitate problems that don’t exist. And if we want to remain within the bounds of accurate information, we should not give more importance to the news of the 28 million break ups on Whatsapp than to the news published on the following day that denied the same study, saying there had been a lack of rigour in the source and in the media’s interpretation. By reducing these practices to our spheres of action and understanding, we can avoid some errors that directly affect us: behind serious problems such as the suicide of Canadian teenager Amanda Todd and other cases of bullying closer to home, there was a lack of appropriate professionals and of a basic process of detection, accompaniment and intervention for problem situations.

It probably makes much more sense to work with high school students to improve and enhance coexistence, rather than prioritising talks on technological aspects or visits by police officers to warn of possible problems. In other words: there are risks, because there are also benefits. We can’t simply focus on the dangers; we need to promote the opportunities. It is a better to work on creating a good Facebook or Instagram profile and on the advantages of a good digital identity than to concentrate on the risks of profile photos and certain images displayed on social networks.

On another level, families often have many doubts about how to ‘deal with’ the technological question at home. Parents often seek advice about what age their children should have a smartphone, open a Facebook account, or play online. And as in any other issue concerning education in the family context, the key elements are common sense, prudence and/or moderation, and emotional support, observation, and communication. Basically, the idea is to shift from ‘don’t connect to the internet in your room’ to ‘come and use the Internet in the dining room so that we can spend some time together’, from ‘are you addicted to Whatsapp’ to ‘Lets talk soon. And will you write something nice for me?’ from ‘close Facebook when you’re studying’ to ‘you’re the best judge of what distracts you and what doesn’t’, from ‘I won’t buy you a mobile’ to ‘I’ll give you one and that means agreeing to certain conditions’, from ‘don’t let it control you’ to ‘love yourself and realise what harms you and what doesn’t’, etc.

Source: Stefan Klauke

Source: Stefan Klauke.

3. In some cases, we find ourselves in a territory that is not without legal issues. Being aware of the legal limits and gaps that exist can help us in our professional practice: to know what is illegal content, what is considered appropriate or inappropriate for different age groups, the types of contact that can take place, and to know what is criminal behaviour and possible legal problems.

4. We have to adjust our (adult) views to these new forms of teenage interaction, communication and coexistence. We will also have to teach online, to be on the net and provide points of reference. It is not about dehumanising traditional face-to-face contact, or moving entirely onto the digital scene, but about complementing our work as educators in the relational spaces that young people use. Spaces that, as we said, are not parallel but merge and compliment each other. In other words: it is we, as adults, who are bent on the eternal separation of the so-called digital world and the misnamed ‘real’ world.

A few proposed ideas for preventive work

A good preventive action plan would need to work from different perspectives, based on a series of core issues. Here is a proposed outline:

1. How do we create an online identity? What does it mean to be present and to participate?

  • Digital reputation and/or footprint: good and bad practices
  • Privacy and intimacy, essential concepts that are being overhauled
  • Developing complex uses: participation, content creation

2. How can we approach the relational issue, given that adults, teenagers and young people share the same space? How can we help to create community?

  • Focus on coexistence and civic responsibility, rather than technology
  • Work on positive experiences, and discuss known problems

3. Are there any guidelines that favour more secure use?

  • Control strategies that boost security: georeferencing, about passwords, etc.

4. How can we detect cases of possible dependence and act on them?

  • Working on awareness and detection of risk factors can help to identify behaviour associated with addiction: solitariness, difficulties relating to others, excessive shyness, social inversion (a significant difference between activity online and in the ‘physical’ world), related problems (a drop in academic performance or a decrease in leisure activities in favour of being online), etc.
  • Guidelines for action in response to dependent, problematic use: control of the use of devices, rules and limits, types of alternative behaviour, gradual control.

5. How can we present a critical discourse around privacy, personal data protection, and the way in which most social media companies affect our rights?

  • Analysing the elements that determine how technology companies manage our data and our rights can help us to develop critical skills.
  • Examine terms of agreement that we agree to when we use different applications
  • Free access in the 2.0 environment: the concept and its implications

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Learning on the Net (2). Between preventive and educational action