The Internet and Young People:
Research practice and the value of public engagement
Newly appointed Professor of External Engagement Andy Phippen began his inaugral lecture to discuss the nature of academia, and some of the criticisms of it. Using the notion of the ‘Ivory Tower’, Andy expressed the notion that the value of research and academic work is often ‘lost in translation’ when it is expressed to the general public.
He explored the reasons why we do research as academics; to furhter our understandings, or to publish and satisfy the Research Excellence Framework. He quoted an academic asserting that in order to fulfill publication and satisy peer review, academics are often driven to use language which may not be compatible with communicating the importance of that research to the public.
Most journals take 1-2 years to publish a paper from initial research findings, in Andy’s area of online safety 2 years is a long time.
Some of the arguments he shared he described as ‘harsh’, as he feels peer review is probably the best way of evaluating academic writing for an academic audience. However, sharing some quotes of the kind of writing that constitutes this discourse, he showed how often this language is not made accessible to those outside of academia.
In some areas we have two parrallel lines, we use public money to publish in journals the public can’t access written in ways the public cannot understand. Theory and practice run side by side, never meeting.
So what are the alternatives? There is a drive in academic to move towards open access and online publications, but there is a view amongst some academics that this is not as valuable. On Friday, Steve Wheeler published an article on his blog; in 5 days it has been read 25,000 times- would it have been recieved this way if it was published in 2 years time in a journal behind a paywall?
Most of Prof. Phippen’s work has been in partnership with the South West Grid for Learning and the UK Safer Internet Centre. This work has wide impact on practice today; it is not of use sat on the academic shelf. Stranger danger, identity theft, cyber bulling and grooming, the media is rife with stories of the dangers of social sites. In his time in the field, he has seen a shift in research from seeing children simply as victims, to a much broader definition taking into account the fact that young people are active agents in a lot of ‘innappropriate’ online behaviour.
When Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg discussed the potential for positive work with young children in teaching appropriate online behaviours, the reaction in mass media showed a very different attitude.
Many schools block such social sites, and report those children under 13 participating in them to have their accounts removed. Rather than working with these young people in developing the kinds of behaviours for keeping safe online, they are often locked down.
The 360 Degree Safe self review tool has allowed 2,500 schools to analyse their work in terms of developing safe online behaviours. This is research with a wide and current data set, which has uncovered a consistent pattern in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of schools working with online safety. This level of engagement of academia with practice is allowing educators to evaluate and improve their development of young people’s skills rather than lock away the problem.
Andy’s latest research on ‘Sexting’, the practice of distributing sexually explicit photographs of oneself, has revealed some shocking statistics.
This unearthed some interesting questions, in particular around what exactly constitutes ‘innapropriate’. When a group of 14 year olds were asked, they explained a string of extreme but specific pornographic images. The questions this begins to raise are what are the effects of long term exposure to pornography from a young age. Some participants in the study revealed shocking attitudes towards sending explicit photographs to strangers and subsequently meet them in person.
These are not problems that can wait for a 2 year publication time to be addressed.
The BBC have researched how young people’s attitudes to sex have been ‘changed’ by the internet, with data from Andy’s research. It drew in participants from a very hard to reach group of young people who have grown up with the kinds of technologies which can facilitate access to this kind of information.
Parameters of what is acceptable and what is not are significantly changing for some groups engaged with this kind of activity. Andy is not convinced such things have had a significant impact on issues such as promiscuity, but his research is showing measurable changes in what kinds of high risk behaviours are seen as ‘acceptable’.
So, as well as the traditional academic route to publication, this work is being dissemenated through websites, twitter and the press and media. Even those writing policy are often not highly engaged with academic discourses, and dissemenating the research to these people so it can make a difference is also key.
Employers are looking at the kinds of information young people post online, and Andy often talks to them about the kinds of things that they are posting in public. Showing some shocking statements posted on a teengager’s public wall, he shared how discussing these issues can havea big impact, causing young people to take stock of their online safety and change their privacy settings.
This work will continue, but Andy also shared his feeling that we need significant work into what it means to be ‘digitally literate’, and the impact of young people who have grown up in this environment as they go into the work place.
Plymouth University has considerable expertise in this area, and Andy announced his intentions to establish a ‘centre of expertise’ to engage with our community and beyond in the area of responsible use of social technologies. Such a centre may involve academic research, but it will also aim to engage with the public discourses in this area and continue Andy’s work to bring the parallel lines of theory and practice together.