Educational games have had a troubled history. At their worst, they have been neither educational nor games; even at their best they have faced scepticism from educators, game designers and especially children. The standard response to being given an educational game – This is supposed to be fun? – might be compared to finding a Brussels sprout at the centre of a Tootsie Pop. Teachers, meanwhile, are rightly concerned that the educational content of these games might be outweighed by the entertainment value. Already loaded down with curriculum that has to be delivered, many educators feel they don’t have the time to spare on anything but direct instruction.
With all the recent attention focused on stories of teenagers charged with distributing child pornography for taking sexually suggestive pictures of themselves, jobs lost due to Facebook and MySpace entries, and libel suits over blog posts, people are justifiably concerned about the permanence of material posted to the Internet. Many a teacher or parent has had to carefully explain to children or teens that whatever they post online might be seen by people other than the intended audience, and might be out there for a very long time.
One of the most famous images of online life is the New Yorker cartoon captioned “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The cartoon, published in 1993, was hugely influential in fixing an image in the public imagination of the Internet as a place where anonymity reigned. It did not take long for that humorous view of anonymity to take on a darker cast, as parents began to fear that Internet predators would use this invisibility to lure their children in the guise of twelve-year-old girls. It’s instructive, though, to realize just how long ago this cartoon was published, and how much the Internet has changed since then.
Ever since Cronus the Titan tried to swallow his son Zeus, parents have feared being supplanted by their children. (It didn’t take.) But it’s only in the last few generations, as the rate of technological progress has accelerated, that children have grown up in a world significantly different from the one their parents knew, and it’s only very recently that parents have seen their surpass them while they were still in the single digits. Thanks to digital media, the world is changing so rapidly today – consider that five years ago there was no Twitter, ten years ago no Facebook and fifteen years ago no Google – that even those of us who spent our childhoods programming our parents’ VCRs can feel left behind.
Just a short while ago, concern with online predators was so dominant that anyone trying to draw attention to the problem of cyberbullying felt like a voice in the wilderness. In the last few years, though, new research has not only provided a more realistic picture of the risks of online sexual solicitation; but has also raised awareness on the severity of cyberbullying. Unfortunately, all of the media attention that is now focused on cyberbullying runs the risk of making public perceptions on this issue as narrow and inaccurate as they were towards online predation.
Someone encountering the Internet for the first time might be forgiven for assuming it was created specifically for teenagers. Indeed, the Internet could reasonably be said to have been aging backwards since its birth – the domain first of scientists and the military, then of university students in the 1990s and now children and teenagers.
One of the great achievements of the Internet has been to put all kinds of information at the fingertips of millions of people. From online encyclopaedias to search engines, some of the most successful online services have been ways of providing answers to people’s questions. It’s not surprising, then, that more and more young people are relying on the Internet to answer their questions about that most uncomfortable of topics: sex. Some people, in fact, have even suggested that the Internet makes those awkward, politically troublesome sex ed. classes irrelevant. In the age of Google, is sex ed. necessary?
Today is Safer Internet Day, an annual international event sponsored by Insafe to promote a safer Internet for children. Recent research on Internet life has shown that the greatest threat to kids online comes from kids themselves, both in the form of risky behaviour and online harassment, or cyber bullying. Cyber bullying can take forms such as harassing e-mails or text messages, social exclusion and spreading private photos and videos, among others, and presents a particular challenge for parents and teachers because it often happens outside the home or classroom. Because the Internet has become an essential part of kids’ social lives, cyber bullying can also have more devastating effects as youth feel they have no escape.
One of the biggest changes in our understanding of bullying has been an increased awareness of the important role witnesses play in any bullying situation. This has been partially because of cyberbullying, which makes it possible for witnesses to be invisible, to join in anonymously, to revictimize a target by forwarding bullying material – or to intervene, to offer support to the target and to bear witness to what they have seen. Just as we’re coming to realize how important witnesses to bullying are, though, we need to be careful to recognize how complex their role is.
How big a problem is cyberbullying? To judge by media coverage, which frequently focuses on the most sensational and extreme cases, it’s an epidemic, and schools and legislators have often responded with heavy-handed measures. Students, on the other hand, are more likely to say that cyberbullying is less of an issue than adults perceive it to be – though even they, in many cases, overestimate how common it actually is. MediaSmarts’ report Cyberbullying: Dealing with Online Meanness, Cruelty and Threats, the third in a series of reports based on data from our Young Canadians in a Wired World survey, suggests that so far as Canadian youth are concerned the answer is somewhere in between, presenting a portrait of online conflict that demands more nuanced, contextualized and evidence-based responses.