When kids are skilled navigators of our networked world

We all – young people and everybody who works with them – are learning what that looks like: skilled navigation of a networked world. We’re also working out what the skills are, how to teach them and what kind of environment (home, school and media environment) supports that learning.

As a society, we’ve only just begun working the problem. The first 15 or so years of the public discussion about youth Internet safety has been much more about protecting children from new media than about helping them learn to navigate it successfully (including safely).

Digital media: The new pencil

Glen Warren, a teacher and vice-president of the California School Library Assoc., uses the pencil metaphor. Early in the days of the pencil (and now!), we wouldn’t put one of those wonderful, very sharp and potentially dangerous tools in the hand of a child without giving the child any sense of how it’s properly used. His point is (pun intended), digital media is the new pencil our children need to know how to use well now. In pre-school, the focus is not on blocking or monitoring and controlling children’s use of pencils; it’s on how to use them (or iPads or apps) to learn, communicate, solve problems and express themselves effectively.

There are signs that we’ve turned a corner; we’re beginning to consider what children need for effective navigation and participation in participatory media and culture. Top researchers and risk-prevention practitioners are calling for a more balanced research agenda, examining positive as well as negative implications. Psychologists are talking about how resilience comes through exposure to risk (not necessarily harm), not risk avoidance (see my takeaways from the FOSI conference). And a national task force I’m serving on is talking about the need not just for a “trust framework” but for teaching literacy skills to young media users.

The skills & affordances kids deserve

Marti Weston, a teacher at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., picked up on the shift in our national discourse in her takeaways from the FOSI conference. She pointed to four things needed for effective navigation of our connected world: agency, choice, equity, and literacy. A blended literacy (social, media and digital) is the baseline skill that all children need and deserve to develop for both their protection and their success. Agency, choice and equity are the essential affordances that education must provide in a world where power and regulation is increasingly distributed and change is often crowd-sourced across countries and continents. Choice is part of both equity and agency, and equity includes not only access but participation for all.

Agency is something we have not allowed our children much in the Internet safety discourse over the past 15 or so years. Even when we talk about “digital citizenship,” we talk more about behavior or “Netiquette” than agency, which is essential to the participation of any citizen in participatory democracy. In fact, I think that, as a society, we’ve been entirely too focused on taking agency away from children, representing them more as potential victims and passive consumers than as stakeholders in their own wellbeing and that of their peers and communities and active participants in user-driven media. How does a child learn empathy, grow in resilience, and develop his or her inner guidance system when the adults in the child’s life try to monitor and control his or her every move?

A renaissance in the offing

A decade and a half in the “online safety” field has led me to believe increasingly strongly that – as we stop focusing on blocking media and monitoring and controlling children and start helping them develop the skills of effective navigation and participation – they will not only be safer now, while still children, they will also be safer, more effective participants in participatory media and culture all their lives, long after they’ve left home and high school.

Having a clear goal helps to clear away confusion on our way to it, right? So, if more and more people who work with children agree that the goal is helping them develop the skills of effective participation in this connected world, we’ll get to the “tipping point” faster – the point where there is much more interest in digital media’s skillful use than there is fear of it. I predict that shift will unleash a learning renaissance for children everywhere.

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