One year on from the London riots, there is still a need for professionals trained to deal with the social problems young people face in using today's technology.
This week marks the first anniversary of the summer riots, where mobile devices played such an important part in connecting rioters with each other and were used to capture much of the carnage and brutality. Of course, the technology didn’t cause the riots, but as the police found out, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) helped crowds gather at remarkable speed and to circumvent police lines.
A year is a long time in terms of technology. New mobile handsets and apps become integrated into our lives at astonishing speed. Over the last 12 months I’ve been working with young people excluded from mainstream schools who are taught instead in pupil referral units (PRUs). The project we’ve been working on is called Munch, Poke, Ping, which I have written about previously in these pages, and has looked at how these young learners are engaging with social media. Through film-making, we’ve been able to explore the paradox that, despite being digitally connected, young people are largely having to cope alone.
Given that so many have few supportive adults in their offline world, is it any wonder their digital life-support systems give them such a strong sense of identity? Despite serious issues, such as their content being “munched” (a screen capture of phone content), being “fraped” (impersonated on Facebook), sworn at in a multi-user Call of Duty game, or finding their name is on a BBM “slag” list, this is a real place they call home.
Over the year, many of the young people I worked with wanted to talk about the events of last summer. Would they be tempted to respond to a message such as: “It’s all kicking off at PC World – where r u?” I asked them. “It depends on who sent it,” was the reply. But who would they turn to for advice if things started going wrong: teachers? Parents? Police? ChildLine? To which the almost unanimous response was: “No way, we’d only be able to talk to our mates, they’re the only ones who would understand.”
Earlier this year, Charlie Taylor, the government’s expert adviser on behaviour, published his report on PRUs, which support around 14,000 students, 79% of whom, the report cites, have some form of special educational need. With the sirens from the riots still echoing in our ears, and a disproportionately high number of young people with special educational needs involved in the disturbances (66% of the 1,984 charged, according to the Ministry of Justice), I was surprised that Taylor’s report didn’t include any reference to the frontline role PRUs play in supporting vulnerable learners in technology misuse.
Similarly, I have observed that many highly committed PRU staff are often ill-equipped to engage with students about their online world, where peer pressures are amplified and new norms and values are being shaped. None of the teachers I talked to knew how to help a child block a fellow BBMer who was being abusive or threatening online. None of them had ever been given hands-on training in understanding the often complex safeguarding issues of privacy and social location settings.
Technology will continue to influence behaviour in schools and on the street. Those working with vulnerable young people need great wisdom and courage to pilot new models of engagement and professional practice. The government advice to simply remove mobiles from schools is like saying we don’t have a problem with smoking because we have a no-smoking policy. The PRUs I worked in were realising that simply banning mobile phones and social networking creates an “unwinnable war”.
There are no silver bullets, but PRU staff need our support and respect, and urgently require highly focused training in social media so they can better support and equip those on the edge of both our offline and online world.
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