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Blog post: The impact of social media on how young people see the world

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Blog post: The impact of social media on how young people see the world

11 January, 2018

By Dr Jacqueline Reilly, Dr Jessica Bates and Dr Stephen Roulston (School of Education, Ulster University)

Recent concerns about ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and online safety for young people have left many teachers (and parents) wondering what, if anything, they should do to ensure that young people develop the ability to navigate the mass of online information sensibly. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and WhatsApp have been of particular concern in relation to accuracy of content, with many rumours and altered images being reported, and also in relation to the tone of interactions between users, which often verges on (or constitutes) bullying or prejudice of one sort or another. However the ubiquity and utility of digital devices has led to gradual disappearance of what used to be seen as a division between the digital and offline worlds, so for young people the development of skills to operate safely and effectively online has become a necessity. Moreover digital resources offer a seemingly endless range of online information, activities and opinion that would be difficult to access by other means and there is no doubt that these are useful tools for teachers generally.

Somers (2017) ponders whether, before educating students on global issues, it might first be necessary to help them understand their relationship with media and social media. She states that “[there is] a sense of disconnect among young people and a lack of confidence in how they can or should engage with issues such as immigration. And this is not just a challenge for global citizenship education but for education in general: it is crucial that young people are equipped with the modern critical skills needed to help them reflect on – rather than be disempowered by – the vast quantities of information at their fingertips.” (1) However, teachers need to be confident in their own digital literacy skills before they can successfully integrate them into the teaching and learning environment and embed them within the curriculum.

For at least two reasons, it is particularly important that educators in Northern Ireland have access to tools and resources that will allow them to gain confidence in this area.  First, in Northern Ireland teachers often address global issues in mono-cultural classroom contexts: a very small proportion of the population was born outside of the UK or Ireland, approximately 4.5% in the last census (2011). This may have increased over recent years, but remains very small and unevenly distributed, with some areas (such as Belfast and Dungannon) having significant diversity while other areas provide few if any opportunities for multicultural interaction. Second, most young people now access their news online, according to the 2017 Reuters Digital News Report. By extension, young people will gain much of their general knowledge about global and development issues from online content and interaction, and they may join in online conversations and discussions about migration, politics and global events. Anyone who is familiar with social media will realise the nature and extent of inaccuracies, bias, prejudice and hatred evident in these fora, which has led to occasional high profile prosecutions, no doubt striking fear in the heart of many a parent.

Parents and teachers are understandably very concerned about online safety, grooming, blackmail, scams and pornography, leading to attempts at high level monitoring of young people online in environments, where this is possible. Parental controls and school firewalls aim to safeguard young people, but the extent to which this approach is successful is questionable, given that some parents and teachers may not be as technically skilled as the average teenager, who nevertheless remains vulnerable to online risks such as phishing. Moreover, at some point young people inevitably become adults. If they have not had the opportunity to develop skills to manage how they access and interact with online material, they may lack access to accurate and informed content and hence form opinions on global issues on the basis of exposure to rumour, inaccuracy, prejudice and hatred.

The power, reach and speed of social media in particular have recently been highlighted in relation to political events and ‘fake news’ (e.g. Brexit, the American Presidential election) and this has sparked a proliferation of online tools and workshops aimed at enabling individuals to identify misinformation, disinformation, opinion and rumour.  However, less often considered are issues in relation to how young people see the world and global development issues. Online debates and political campaigns relating to immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and causes of domestic and international crises are readily accessible and often attract both widespread attention and controversy.  For example when toddler Alan Kurdi drowned in the Mediterranean sea in September 2015, the charity Migrant Offshore Aid Station received more than 15 times the usual level of donations within 24 hours of publication of the photos. By December that year, the Guardian critiqued a range of reports in other news outlets which had provided negative slants to the story, including that the child’s father Abdullah Kurdi had boarded the boat to access dental treatment, that he had sold his son’s clothes to a Paris museum, that the photos had been faked. Debate raged as to the morality and relative utility of similar photos in raising awareness of migrant issues, balanced against the possibility of controversy and heated debate around them.

Yet in a context such as Northern Ireland, the internet remains a powerful tool for teachers addressing diversity and global issues in the absence of diversity. How then can parents and teachers best prepare young people to evaluate online content and equip them with skills to develop knowledge and opinions on issues of which they may have little direct experience, while keeping themselves safe online?

One place teachers might start is within the curriculum. Many relevant curriculum skills are intended to equip pupils for lifelong learning and for contributing effectively to society. At Key Stage 3 for example, cross-curricular skills embedded throughout the curriculum include Communication and Using ICT, while thinking skills and personal capabilities to be developed include Thinking, Problem Solving and Decision Making and Managing Information.  All the above should assist young people in evaluating and interpreting online content and recognising inaccurate or biased information, whether it be online or in other (mainstream) media. Some subject areas, such as History (which in Northern Ireland adopts an enquiry based approach) and Geography may also have direct relevance to development of these skills. However, there is often little evidence on the extent to which the curriculum skills are applied beyond the classroom, or to which teachers encourage young people to use these skills online.

We recently explored these issues in an Imagine Belfast panel discussion organised in association with Concern Worldwide, with a panel consisting of teacher educator Dr Alan McCully (Ulster University), social media commentator Alan Meban, Grosvenor College pupil Nevin Mawhinney, and teacher Caitlin Hughes (Cross and Passion College, Ballycastle). The audience, mostly teachers and post-primary pupils, discussed issues such as personalised news (which pupils seemed to think was a good idea), teachers’ concerns over their own ability to effectively guide students, and the implications for perceptions of global development issues. We also, as part of an Ulster University Widening Access Project, produced a resource booklet for teachers and parents, and conducted three digital literacy workshops with Key Stage 3 pupils addressing ‘Fake News’, which were exceptionally well received by both pupils and teachers.  On the basis of this work, we became convinced that teachers have the tools, in the form of the curriculum, to address this issue; what they may lack is confidence, along with age and contextually appropriate learning and teaching materials.

Due to the considerable interest in these small projects, we are now preparing to extend this work. With the support of the Global Learning Programme (GLP), we will be offering Continuing Professional Development workshops for teachers, which will equip them with the tools to address these issues in the classroom. This will ensure that the next generation of young people recognise that the transferable skills they acquire during their education are useful tools which will assist them in lifelong learning about global development issues.

The inaugural workshop will take place on 1 February 2018 in the Play Resource Centre, Belfast. It is for post-primary teachers of any subject who feel they will benefit from attending. To find out more or to book a place, please click here.


(1) Source:

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