Youth Engagement – The Appeal of the Internet ?

image engagement

Anyone working or living with children or young adults will be aware of the appeal of the Internet. Student online interaction features highly in the press, technology forums and on school leader agendas. In my role as a tech leader, it’s also a regular topic in parent consultations and cross-school debate. Luckily this is in both positive and negative aspects.

Coleman (2006) wrote about ‘random sociability’ that seems to invoke participation. Harris (2008) examines youth online engagement, modes of participation by young women; focusing on how techno-enabled activity can reflect a level of social and political awareness, but is not necessarily [or conventionally] political.

As adults, most of us are familiar with a relentless barrage of Status Updates, Selfie and Instagram-tastic posts, and how social media sites can and do target us with consumerism, based upon our own choices/searches/Likes when online. However, user awareness, particularly if our social media accounts are not individually protected leave many clueless to how algorithms and user data are tracked and used without our knowledge.

What’s the Appeal?

An online presence allows you to share whatever and be whoever you want. To curate ideas, opinions and Followers in a way that shifts traditional social constructs and boundaries.

Harris (2008) talks about online spaces compensating for the decreasing lack of physical spaces for young people to congregate. Being able to ‘hang out’ online has benefits, for example to be part of a group without the financial outlay for clothing trends, travel and gadgetry that may signal ‘belonging’ in a real group.

Online narratives weave together identity, opinion and also imply the construction of ‘Critical Agency’ versus ‘Passive Consumption’ of media or political opinion. ‘Young women’s involvement in online DIY cultures and in social networking can illustrate how they are using new technologies to grapple with shifting boundaries between public and private, their interpellation as consumer citizens, the contradiction of a traditional public sphere’. (Harris: 485).

New meaning is being constructed through the style and design of websites, blogs and online Affinity Spaces created by young people. To me, it seems this parallels the need mentioned above for clothes, style, and image investment, but in an online world versus personal retail investment.

The benefit of not having to create or adhere to, constraints of image, gender, culture or parental guidelines are huge. Authors creating content and offline identity via an online persona is an interesting paradigm.

The internet is undoubtedly an interesting, boundary-free destination and Kaplan and Farrell (1994) consider how forums are often ‘driven by the desire of the participants to keep the conversation going than by their desire to achieve understanding of or consensus about some topic or issue’ (Harris: 490)

Technology provides an opportunity for, e.g. ‘Acting more confidently than they may face2face’. Henderson et al (2002), Gibian (2003), Thiel (2005) studied this pre-smartphone culture, which feature actual/perceived images more readily. Social activity is changing rapidly and ‘online DIY cultures’ e.g. blogs, forums, e-zines, websites are now classified as ‘spaces of expression’ (Harris, 2008)

To me, students in Y3 upwards symbolize ‘Generation LOL’. They have heard older siblings using text speak, experience punctuation allergies [see To Blog or Not To Blog – What Is Your Question] and although multilingual, often numb down communication to a string of emoji when messaging. “..but they’re cool Miss Iles!” can be heard when I explain that time could be better spent explaining ideas in a way that represents the articulate people they are.

However, is their wish to respond to classmates by exploring every single global emoji list based on clear communication – or to be ‘in’ and participate with peers?

Without question the latter.

In a school environment, we are responsible for teaching students how to access, review and manipulate information sourced online, within clear ‘SafeSearch’ settings. To be able to make sensible choices about the information they access, we first focus on skills they need to search appropriately. In recent years, my curriculum included digital citizenship and literacy.

For example, how to keyword search via a safe search engine, what to do if you encounter something that concerns or upsets you – over time and as digital information became more and more prevalent in daily life, teaching focus shifted more into all round ‘Citizenship’, i.e. to ‘Doing the right thing and making the right choices’. Curriculum 2014 features 3 strands, one of which is Digital Literacy.

Could the Internet be a vehicle to re-engage youth and forge interests linked to civic engagement?

Bachen, et al (2004) built on Selwyn’s (2002) work that highlighted two key aspects of engaging youth:

  • developing ability to use ICT as a vehicle to learn about and participate in civic life
  • capacity to engage with ICT as a topic/policy domain

I like the description of the Internet providing a “free space” for ‘low-risk exploration of civic identities and alternatives to mainstream views across geographical and social group boundaries’ (Flanagan & Gallay, 2001).

Bachen et al (2008) explores the issues surrounding media literacy, ICT Policy and Interactivity, categorized as:

  • Content Interactivity – user controls selection of content by accessing links, docs, etc.
  • Interpersonal Interactivity – person2person communication via messages, info and game forums.

I did a quick scan of several Dutch political youth websites while researching this post and found a prevalence of Content Interactivity in the form of agendas, minutes, events calendars, along with live Twitter feed, but that few offered an obvious route to Interpersonal Interaction. The focus appeared to be on rallying galvanizing support for meeting and rallying as opposed online debate.

In relation to pedagogy, I feel there are many websites and apps that do not deliver ‘what they say on the tin’ and although marketed as ‘interactive activities’, for example for research, topic or reading, this will often entail clickable options within menus and viewing, with the exception of activating sound bites/video clips and scrolling. Even BBC or National Geographic, ESSA or NASA allow you to interact with the information accessible there, but not broadly engage in live participation or creating content. Websites often niftly miss their target audience by pitching content in a form which is too childish for 2015 youngsters who are growing up app-smashing.

At 5 upwards, our students are adept at employing digital skills to create app-smashed content [imaginatively using multiple apps to create an enhanced project]. Therefore, if they are to be attracted by online content, producers will need to ramp up the complexity of interactive content – or better still, engage their target audiences in the development of that material.

Games are often featured by organisations or developers as a hook to target certain age groups, generating some interest, but as Bachen et al (2009) concluded, these often ‘modestly increase’ young people’s interest, but ‘do little or nothing to boost’ skills or knowledge about their prime topics.

You only need to walk into Year 4 at the moment, who are raising awareness of Rainforest issues by programming animations in Scratch or into Y6 Green Screening their Legacy messages; to know that Collective participation using technology is already familiar territory to your average junior school pupil.

It is important to involve students not only in authoring content, but also in the policy-making processes. We draft our Responsible User Agreements with input from students and parents. Transparency leads to agreements that are more meaningful if created by the people who will use them. Policy is not static and needs to evolve over time, in line with user skills, needs and the changing face of digital media.

This ties in well with the message on one of our walls that reads

‘Today’s Learners are Tomorrow’s Leaders’

Bachen, C, Raphael, C, Lyn, K.M., McKee, K & Philippi, J (2008). Civic Engagement, Pedagogy, and Information Technology on Web Sites for Youth
, Santa Clara University, California [Online Publication Date: 01 July 2008]

Harris, A (2008) Young Women, later modern politics, and the participatory possibilities of online cultures. Routledge, Journal of Youth Studies: Vol.11 No.5, October 2008, 481-495

MA Research


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