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When talk is cheap – and nasty

Guest Post by Enlighten Education’s Program Director for Queensland, Storm Greenhill Brown

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Is it just me or does the proliferation of mobile phones among even our youngest school children worry others too? When waiting to pick up my son from school I often see girls as young as six or seven walking along avidly engaged with their mobile phones and comparing them enthusiastically with one another. From speaking with various Mothers who have issued their girls with these diamante encrusted pink accessories I have gleaned a few reasons for their “must have it” attitude. Safety is paramount for these baby tweens. I totally appreciate this but have to wonder how dangerous a supervised pick up school zone is and when you would need to phone Mum if she drives you to school and then walks you in. These phones are dangled on lanyards around necks with a “mine is newer, got more features” attitude. Why are they not stored away in the bag? Branding is powerful and at work in the playground of the baby tween.

But the fashion thing is not really my biggest concern about the mobile phone phenomenon. Like those other Mums, it’s safety. A forthcoming issue of Teacher Magazine (produced by the Australian Council for Education Research), reports on a study by a group of Australian academics ( including my husband Dr Mark Brown) which found that as many as 93% of school students had experienced some form of bullying via mobile phones– what they refer to as m-bullying. A similar study in the US last year claimed that 85% of children aged 10-14 years had experienced cyberbullying (via the Internet). The upward trend of people using technology to harass others is really very disturbing.

Last year, the world drew breath in collective horror when it was revealed that the high profile suicide of 13 year old Megan Meiers in the US was partly due to her being tormented on MySpace by an adult posing as a 16 year old boy – in actuality, the mother of one of her former friends. And I shuddered when I read about a teenage girl in the UK who killed herself after receiving hundreds of hate messages on her phone in a matter of hours. Similar stories are found in countries throughout the world.

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The worrying thing about mobile phones is that children carry them all the time. The ability to bombard others with text messaging or to pass on humiliating photos or video is heightened. Since it is immediate in nature, the time for reflection is reduced and the speed of action and potential for anonymity are very appealing. Who hasn’t sent off an email in a huff and regretted it the next day?

What’s more, it seems that children generally don’t like to tell adults it’s happening. Research suggests that the peak bullying years are from 11-14 years, when kids are quite keen to give it a try. The anonymity of the mobile phone means that children who may not be capable of being physical bullies can now actively participate. We need to be very vigilant about what goes on not only in the schoolyard but increasingly behind our children’s bedroom door. Depriving them of mobile phones or internet connections is probably not practical and may even harm relationships with our kids. We need to be more proactive in communicating with them about the dangers of the “always switched on” world and give them strategies to deal with it.

Enlighten’s workshops emphasise the importance of recognising self-worth, true friendships, and personal safety.  In our workshop “Stop, I Don’t Like It” we explore the importance of setting boundaries in the real, and in the cyber, world. The following links are also very helpful and well worth downloading as a reference point:

“Mobile phones and bullying – what you need to know to get the bullies off your back,” produced by the Australian Mobile Telecommunication Association.

The Child Safety Check List  produced by the Australian Communication and Media Authority- covers everything from costs and charges, to handling nuisance calls.

Published inBullyingCyber world / BullyingFriendshipMobile PhonesParentsPower of Words

8 Comments

  1. I actually just bought my 9 year old daughter a mobile phone for her Birthday (second hand, pre paid). I didn’t do this for her safety as she is always with an adult coming home, rather as she sees what a great tool for communication these can be! I am quite addicted to my phone.

    I LOVE being able to send her texts… little secret notes we share. She delights in these and I too love getting updates from my girl.

    When she first received the phone, we did have to sit down and have many big talks about appropriate use as although she does not use this outside the family home yet, one day she will indeed be exposed to many secret notes – not all of which will be loving.

    As an avid user of all new technology, I think the key is in education. I am somewhat surprised by the hostility some older people seem to display towards young people when they embrace technology. My son’s use of his nintendo seems to make some people livid – they will actually comment that “children nowadays will grow up lacking in intelligence and social skills.” I don’t buy into this at all. Technology, used wisely, allows for exploration, problem solving and provides a sense of control.

  2. Cath Riddoch

    I think bullying is a problem and bullies will use any tool available. I’m sure many people have seen nasty notes getting passed around or upsetting letters, then there is mean graffiti (just look in the school toilets to see that) so are pens dangerous too? In my opinion mobile phones and social websites are only tools which can be used for good or bad.

    I agree with the last comment the key is education.

  3. Lisa Porter

    As a teacher I have to say… mobiles are a PAIN in the classroom! Students “forget” to turn them off, and sometimes will deliberately disrupt a lesson (and get a friend into trouble) by surruptitiously smsing each other – in a way this is another form of bullying. Then there’s thefts and the inevitable comparing that goes on… I suppose when was a kid it was all about the newest and best sneakers!

    I am also concerned about the inappropriate content that gets passed around on phones. I will never forget having a phone shoved in my face, “Miss, check THIS out!” – it was a video of a beheading. I mean, why? Why does anyone need to see this stuff?

    I know I sound like an old fogie, and when kids ask, “Miss, what was the mobile phone policy when you were at school?” I have to admit that mobiles were just being developed and were roughly the size of a house brick! Technology changes so fast and we have to change with it or get left behind… I firmly agree that the key is education (but that’s my answer to everything 🙂

  4. Education is vital. I guess the key is – who is responsible? Yes parents must play a part but more and more schools are being asked to manage the social implications of technology too. This is where I think external providers like Enlighten can play a key role. Classroom teachers are not always comfortable with the myriad of other issues they are being increasingly asked to address on top of their key learning area. It has also been my experience that externals may have an increased impact too as they are seen as “experts” and can prepare highly engaging, relevant materials to present which classroom tecahers are just way too pressured to get to.

    I love knowing we support and compliment schools in addressing all the needs of their students. Our client schools see their students as whole people navigating increasingly complex lives – not just as academic candidiates. Creative solutions to education in this new millenium are essential.

  5. Sonia Lyne

    Congratulations Storm for providing an insightful post into the misuse of mobile phones by the younger generation. I too feel your concern in regards to the extent of bullying that can occur due to the nature of the expanding text. Passing a derogatory note usually did not get past the classroom door. Now with mobiles phones those negative messages can circle the globe.

    Your post also raised for me the concern of capitalising on the younger market and the increasing pressure to consume. The brand and look of their mobile phones coupled with a desire for the latest technology and newest product reflects the materialistic values some children now have. What do others think?

  6. On your point about mobiles potentially widening the bullying circle Sonia – yes, I had not really considered that. Also, although nasty notes can be thrown away, or names wiped away from walls, technology ensures negative comments and inappropriate images are far more wide reaching and permanent. How to delete messages that may have been forwarded to hundreds of people?

    The tools themselves aren’t to blame – as Cathy said, they can be used for good too – we just need to ensure the lasting and long reaching implications of all our words (including those texts that can seem oh-so- throw-away) are really understood.

  7. storm greenhill-brown

    As educators we all value and embrace new ways of understanding and learning about the world. For me, most technology comes at a price. Sure, there are great benefits to be had. but I want my kids to master the skills of interacting with people face to face – I want them to learn about body language, the nuances of the spoken word, and the importance of tone and pace of the speaker. It is sometimes more difficult to continue with an argument if you can see the impact your words are having on someone else – but not so much when you are alone in your room with black text on a screen. Whilst Gen Y mostly love technology, I am also concerned whether they really understand the complexity of it? People are quick to say how tech-savvy this generation is but at a school recently, a teacher remarked to me that her students had had an extensive in-school workshop on protecting themselves on Facebook and MySpace. According to her, most of the students responded with “OH… Wow.. we didn’t realise..” To me awareness and education are crucial and I feel I have given my 9 year old both but slowly..slowly. For me, you’re a long time being a grown-up. Why not delay and minimise saturation of popular culture for as long as possible?

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