Tuesday, March 20, 2012

NZ Kids Online - How much do we know?

This year I am out of the classroom as I received a Study Award from TeachNZ, so I am working on postgraduate research instead, through the University of Auckland.

The topic I am exploring is how New Zealand children are using the internet - how they approach risks of various kinds, what skills they have in facing these risks, and how this might relate to the Key Competencies in the NZ Curriculum that we try to impart in our classroom programmes. I intend to analyse the findings to identify the conditions for increased confidence and skill levels online in order to minimise the risk of harm and maximise the opportunities that the internet offers.

My research will seek to answer the question, “How are 9-12 year old children in New Zealand using the internet, what factors lead to increased self-confidence and competency in dealing with online challenges, and what are the implications of this for schools?”

Last year I had the opportunity to present at the ULearn Conference, looking at the importance of researching children's use of the internet in a New Zealand context. While I was there I recorded this EDtalk, which has recently been put online.

To be honest, recording this was even more nerve-wracking then giving the talk itself! Nevertheless, it was a good opportunity to articulate some of what I have been discovering.

When I was reading around this issue I was struck by how little research there was based on the New Zealand experience. There are some studies looking at teenage internet use, but as for children I had to go back as far as 2002 to find a decent size study. As we all know, the online world was quite a different place back then. In 2002, Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Twitter, youtube and even Gmail did not exist. And that’s without discussing the changes to web access via mobile devices such as the iPod Touch and games consoles since that time. Clearly the landscape has changed. 

Take Facebook for example. Consumer Reports ‘State of the Net’ survey last year found that, quote, “Of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year, 7.5 million of them were younger than 13”, and that most of these accounts were unsupervised by parents. In fact, in the USA the number of parents who would allow their 10-12 year olds to have a Facebook account has doubled in the space of a year, according to Liberty Mutual's Responsibility Project. The same survey showed that most parents also expect teachers and schools to do more to deal with the fall out.

Clearly, whether we like it or not, this is something we as educators are going to have to invest time in, and we need to do this from a position of knowledge of our own context here in New Zealand. Research around online privacy and risk is of vital importance. The disproportionate media attention given to unusual but high profile examples of online danger can have too much influence on policy formation. New Zealand-based research will help to separate actual online practice from media-hype based on sensationalist (albeit serious) examples. It will, therefore, provide a robust and reliable benchmark that other researchers and policymakers might use to inform policy in regards to appropriate responses, both in schools and more broadly in society.

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