Teen’s ‘street literacy’ thwarts phone thief

By Stephen Carrick-Davies

Last week my 17-year old son was stopped by a group of young people at the local bus stop in South London  who demanded he give them his mobile.

Nothing new there, this has happened before to him and his 14 year-old brother.  What I found staggering was that on both occasions the young men demanded that first my sons log-out of their ICloud/Apple ID account so as to disable the Find my IPhone feature.  Smart thinking, eh?

Yes, but my sons are just as smart. On both occasions they deliberately made mistakes entering their passwords and on the first occasion stalled the attackers long enough so as to raise suspicion.  When a passing neighbor shouted out across the street, “Everything all right lads?” the thieves fled.

In this most recent episode, there was no Samaritan – digital or otherwise – and the attackers became impatient and nervous.  “Then give us what money you have” they demanded, remembering that stealing a traceable expensive iPhone was worthless.  But my kids don’t use cash, why should they when their mobile is their wallet?  All the group could demand was that my son hand over his transit card which had only £2.50 of credit. Enough for a single bus fare to the local police station. I wish!

When I questioned my boys about the incident later they both said that this mugging with manners was normal. “Normal?” I asked with incredulity. Not for the first time in this world of imposter parenting, I was speechless. My carefully-honed lecture on the ‘trouble with normal’ could wait.

Whilst the advice I always give my children is that it is safer to hand over a phone when threatened, I am fascinated that my boys were able to stay calm, remain in control and defuse the aggression, walking away relatively unscathed.  Where did they learn social and emotional intelligences? From school, from their peers, from us as parents?  Or was it from online games or the mobile device itself? If so is there an App we can all download?  And talking of apps – wouldn’t it be good if the ‘find my phone’ device had a feature which you could activate in moments of a crime to show that the feature had been disabled, only to come on again 12 hours later !  Solving crime; better by design?

Technology vs. ‘Lifeology’

Educators talk a lot about the power of technology to transform education.  The “Ed Tech” industry is massive. In many developing countries where I work, governments are being encouraged  to invest in Ed Tech to ‘leapfrog’ towards more learner-centered education quickly and cheaply.  However, Technology is useless without “Lifeology” (if there is such a word) and in particular a knowledge and understanding of how technology is creating a new education eco-system, one in which formal schooling is losing its monopoly and ‘preferred supplier’ status for learning.  In this new gig economy, anyone who has the responsibility or influence over children – including parents who give their child a mobile phone – should call themselves a teacher.

This isn’t of course to displace gifted, dedicated qualified teachers who work tirelessly inspiring our children to love learning and become equipped for a changing world.  But the writing is on the screen. If young learners are “doing it for themselves” and learning in more informal, personalized, boutique, fun environments, it won’t just be older students who reject the malware of expensive university education. Disillusioned and exhausted teachers are leaving a profession whose measure of success now seems to solely be academic achievement.  Yes, schools give children the steps to climb a ‘ladder of learning’, but that’s of limited help if this ladder is up against the wrong wall.   Don’t believe me, just wait till the new kid on the block AI comes swaggering around the corner!

Of course, the unstructured alternative learning environment outside of the school is filled with contradictions and risks.  We tell our children not to lie, but many have to bend the truth to survive.  We tell our children they have self-worth but our children as young as 8 and 9 are now judged by their social worth on the digital currency market of public likes and shares. We tell our children to be life-long, independent learners, but are often too arrogant to learn from them and understand the relevance of their choices in their world.

While the use of tech within formal education is often over-rated and exaggerated, its impact on influencing our children in the informal education eco-system is conversely under-rated. Make no mistake, our education offering will be forced to adapt if young people are to be better prepared to survive and thrive in knowledge-based economies and increasing artificially intelligent world. But its wider impact will be to disrupt the power-imbalance between formal education and its estranged cousin, community education, where children need both a moral compass and a sat nav to navigate the contradictions and inequalities of life.

Is ‘give me your mobile?’  just a mere, anecdotal story which, thankfully on this occasion, did not result in violence? Maybe, but for me it was a ‘cross-over’ point, a teachable moment. For in a world where young people are facing challenges we never had to confront, where one’s mobile ID is much more important than a National Insurance number and where one can learn more about casual cruelty in a 10 minute YouTube tutorial than an hour’s school lesson, perhaps we all need to ask children to “Give us your mobile!”

Stephen Carrick-Davies is the CEO of Mondo Foundation, working on educational initiaves in Nepal. He is former CEO of Childnet International.