How to use tech to empower young people

With tech constantly changing, teachers must keep up to help students navigate the digital world, says Jess McBeath

Jess McBeath

The power of tech: How to make sure that young people make the most of the digital world

Six years ago, young children did not own mobile devices. Now, nearly one in five three- to four-year-olds own a tablet and nearly half watch YouTube.

We are part of a complex and evolving digital ecosystem. We are fundamentally transforming how we communicate, learn, work, socialise and have fun.  There are profound implications for us as individuals, families, communities and societies – and, of course, schools and teachers.

Think of what's happened in the past three years:

The digital landscape has transformed but our online safe messaging has not: don’t share. Don’t talk. Don’t meet.

Mobile phones: Will banning tech compromise pupils’ futures?

TikTok: Has the 'foot shake dance challenge' hit your class?

Pisa: Chinese students better at spotting fake news

Social media overuse: The struggle to get up for school

How effective are these messages? Do they resonate with young people? Adults do all of the things we tell children not to. Parents routinely share personal information about their children online. One in five couples meet online

Don't make tech scary

We need to equip rather than restrict children. But how?  Here's a good start:

  1. Don’t wait until you understand the tech
    It can be tempting to postpone talking to young people about digital until you properly understand the tech. Once you know how TikTok works, you’ll feel more confident talking  about it.  Don’t wait. The tech constantly changes, and young people don’t expect (or want) adults in their space. You have a mountain of professional skills and lifetime experience to provide valuable support to young people, whether in their online or offline lives. Start now.

  2. Change your focus
    Change lessons that focus on scaring, shocking or tricking young people – instead focus on empowering them and understanding their motivations.  For example, you may run a lesson about ensuring that young people don’t post something online that will prevent them landing a job later on. Turn this around to focus on their career aspirations: how can their online identity support, enhance and protect these aspirations?  Similarly, if you’re looking at cyber security, how about organising a debate with young people as to why they know the rules but don’t follow them (for example, sharing Snapchat passwords to maintain Snapstreaks, even though they know the importance of password security)?

There’s more to do to prepare and empower our children and young people to live a good digital life.  Let’s empower educators with the knowledge, skills and confidence to engage meaningfully with the digital generation. 

This is the purpose of a new, free training programme in Scotland: Safe and Empowered: Responding to a Digital Generation. It’s a blended approach of face-to-face and online events. Educators from early learning, primary, secondary, community learning and colleges can all  attend.

We all need to play a part in keeping children safe in this brave new digital world.

Jess MacBeath is an online safety consultant, writing on behalf of SWGfL (Safety and Security Online), a lead partner in the UK Safer Internet Centre. She tweets at @JessLemonTree

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