It Takes a Village… A Digital One…

Posted on: Sunday 17 August 2014 12:28pm by Shirley Dent

CMC session producer Dr Shirley Dent reflects on Out of the Mouths of Babes: Free Expression, Children and 21st Century Media – the session she produced for CMC as part of CMC’s collaboration with Battle of Ideas – two days of high-level, thought-provoking, public debate organised by the Institute of Ideas annually.

To misquote Mark Twain – again – the reports of the death of social media have been greatly exaggerated.

Earlier this year tech blogger Stuart Dredge declared that Facebook still had BFF[1] status with teens. This followed the release of findings from the Forrester survey of US 12-17 year olds. The survey found that three quarters of the young respondents use Facebook. Half reported they are using it more than they did a year ago.

The message that social media is here to stay for young people – an indispensable, inescapable part of growing up – was reinforced at the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield in May. The conference closed with a lively, inspiring session where Moshi Monster founder, Michael Acton Smith, announced Mind Candy’s next big ideaPopJam, a creative community for 7-12 year old kids with a distinct social media feel and format.

With children playing and participating in online communities such as Moshi Monsters, Bin Weevils and Club Penguin when they are still at primary school, PopJam feels almost natural in its progression. A team such as Mind Candy is both inventive and committed to children’s creativity and safety.  Social media presents creative children’s content providers with an eager, interactive audience ready to be entertained and engage. What’s not to like, we may ask?

Plenty, would be the answer of many. The young social media audience is not only an audience that answers back, it also talks to itself. And that conversation sometimes has little or no self-imposed editorial brakes. For all the benefits of instant connection and discussion with friends from potentially across the globe, there are also well-publicised concerns about young people and peer pressure on social media sites. From tragic cases of teenage suicide linked to social media sites to the excesses of viral crazes such as Nek Nominate and the recently reported #firechallenge craze in the US (where teens set alight to themselves and post videos of the feat onto social networking sites), the headlines can lead us to believe a digital Lord of the Flies is playing out online.

So is more rigorous moderation – even regulation – the answer? Where does this leave children’s media who want to – in creative, fun and educational ways – interactively engage those online communities from ever younger ages?

The answer is not straightforward. What is appropriate to argue when talking about the free speech and free expression of an adult is not the same when talking about the free expression of a seven-year old. But on balance, I think we need to recognise that there are limits to how rigorously social media can or should be policed. For me the answer is moderation that can rise to the challenge of bringing appropriate adult authority into the digital sphere while allowing – and trusting – young people to push at boundaries in online communities as they will push at boundaries offline.

This is where we as adults need to be brave and perhaps a little grown up ourselves. We need to recognise that children and young people make mistakes and that we will not like everything they say or do online (as if we are honest our own parents probably would not have liked everything we said or did in the more private spaces of our youth). What is really important here is that as a society we help young people find their own way through social media minefields.

And this is where trust is important. I have sometimes been at discussions where shocking cases of abuse on social media have come to dominate and a minority of appalling behaviour has stood for the whole. Young people are described as almost innately predisposed to abuse, bully and persecute each other. We know – particularly those who have chosen to work with children in the media – that this is not the truth of the matter. Children can be naughty. Teens can be a pain. But they are on the whole full of good stuff. Rather than panic about peer pressure, perhaps we need to trust it more – creatively, emotionally – and celebrate it online and offline.

And perhaps we need to also trust ourselves as adults more. This trust in ourselves starts with confidence in our authority to direct children as to what is right and wrong when they are young and negotiating all sorts of social boundaries and relationships for the first time, online and offline. But it does not end there. We need to find ways to trust ourselves – and other adults – to be part of children’s digital lives. There is a sense in which we need to rebuild confidence and trust in our intergenerational online relationships with young people.

Out of the mouths CMC 14The truth and simplicity of this was brought home to me at the discussion I chaired at the Children’s Media Conference on social media. Panellist Rebecca Newton, Chief Community and Safety Officer for Mind Candy, made a simple point that stayed with me. It takes a village, she reminded us, to raise a child. And that means not a space that is exclusively for children or adults. But a mixing of all ages in a community that engages with each other in creative, social and supportive ways. That is what happens in ‘real’ communities – you don’t find age segregated towns, for example. True to this philosophy, Moshi Monsters has allowed parents to join the online community rather than exclude them, allowing mums, dads and grandparents to be part of a child’s growing creativity and social development in a digital community.

And behind the headlines about social media, the kids themselves seem to be saying they are alright.

According to a Common Sense Media survey, 52% of 13-17 year olds said that social media had helped their relationships with friends compared to 4% who said social media had negatively affected their friendships.

This does not mean we ignore those shocking, tragic cases or allow children to say or do as they please in a digital environment. But we should also remember what is positive about children’s engagement with social media. And our role as adults in that engagement.

[1] Best Friends Forever   😉

Producer Report

Shirley Dent

About the author

Shirley Dent

Institute of Ideas, Associate Fellow

Shirley Dent is an Associate Fellow of the Institute of Ideas, where she was formerly Communications Director. She worked as Head of Communications and Campaigns Advisor for the UK’s phone-paid regulator, where she led work on children and connected devices such as smartphones. Shirley recently set up Spark Mobile -… Read more