[tech] abuse, anxiety, and agency - "Making the Internet Safer for Young People" event by The Empower Project

November 21, 2019

 

Young people's online safety and well-being should be everyone's priority. To build a better, more inclusive and ethical digital future for everyone, we might stop for a moment and consider this question - what can we do to make the Internet better for young people? In November, I was able to do just that at the event the Scottish Parliament organised by the Empower Project. The purpose of the event, "Making the Internet Safer for Young People", was to co-design an action plan on internet safety in Scotland. While the event was primarily aimed at young people, the room was packed with people of different ages and types of expertise when it comes to young people's digital lives. The speakers included founders of the Empower Project, members of the 5Rights Commission and The Chachi Project. You can read more about the event in this Empower's blog post.

 

 
In this blog post, I'd like to reflect on some of the topics that were covered at the Empower Project's event. In this brief analysis of my group's discussion, I'm going to focus on 3 messages that I've taken away from the event. In short, I'll describe them as three A's - abuse, anxiety, and agency. [Below, I'm describing some of my observations from the event - it is important to note that these are super subjective and not representative of the entire event, just saying :) ]


 

 

[tech] ABUSE: the never-ending list.
One of the things that struck me at the event, was the long list of forms of digital abuse mentioned by one of the speakers. I learned about the newer terminology used to describe and categorise forms of tech-abuse. Examples include doxing (the unauthorized retrieving and publishing, often by hacking, of a person’s personal information); flaming (a flood of vitriolic and hostile messages including threats, insults, slurs and profanity); or Google Bombing (the deliberate optimization of malicious information and web sites online so that when people search for a target they immediately see defamatory content). Although I'm aware that in recent years the online abusers have become increasingly innovative in their use of digital tools (e.g. deep fakes, smart home abuse), I'm still struggling to get my head around the amount of tech-abuse and its impact.

Both offline and online, toxic power imbalances lead to self-censorship and disempowerment. When it comes to young girls,  43% have
reported to censor themselves online in fear that their opinion might be criticised. The silencing effect, stopped me from openly sharing my thoughts on Twitter - as a woman, migrant, activist, and academic.

 

 



How should we respond to tech-abuse? The Empower's message is clear - we should not be complicit nor silent about tech-abuse. It is important to co-investigate problems and co-design solutions. Tech-abuse can only be tackled through a proactive and critical examination of the symptoms as well as the roots of the problem. To achieve this, [the amazing] Empower, aim to create spaces for young people to share their experiences, thoughts, ideas and feelings about these issues, and to support them to participate in figuring out what our community response to tech abuse should look like.
 

 

 

 

 

[tech] anxiety: are we doing it right?

When it comes to our digital lives, most of us are anxious (and a little bit confused). The digital anxiety was at the centre of our group disscussion.


There are, of course, so many positive aspects of our digital worlds - we can find our tribes online, exchange knowledge and amplify our voices. When it comes to young people, social media have played an instrumental role during youth-led campaigns such as #ClimateChangeStrke and #PeriodPoverty. However, there are also negatives associated with digital lives. Problems such as tech-abuse, social media 'addiction', fake news and online abuse make us uncomfortable.

All of the above make our relationship with our digital selves complicated. We are both excited and scared about the curation of our digital footprints. We want to be visible and heard online, yet we're not sure about how our digital activities impact on our privacy (see the privacy paradox). We are keen to participate in the digital world but are not sure what the right amount of digital participation is adequate (but not too much or too little).

Our complicated relationship with technologies was also explored during the event. Should we take regular breaks? Should we install software to monitor our screen time? Should we make our bedrooms smartphone free? These were some of the questions explored at the Empower Project's event.

The discussion made it clear that approaches to managing our anxieties are highly individual. What works for me, might not work for you. While there is tons of information on how to best manage your online-offline life (or simply your life), many of the resources may not be useful when it comes to our individual needs. I'm not going to pretned that there is no golden rule or a blanket approach for all of our digital needs. As a researcher, examining the social impact of digital and data, I still haven't worked out any magic offline-online balance. What I do know is that we've limited control and agency over what we see online, so for now, tapping into our inner wisdom and self-compassion might be helpfull when trying to work-out our digital anxieties.

 

 

 

Agency: we need better education.

The third topic covered at the Empower's event was closely linked to our digital anxieties - the sense of agency. Agency can be described as, "the subjective awareness of initiating, executing, and controlling one's own volitional actions in the world".  Who is control of our digital lives? To what extent are we able to make informed and autonomous decisions in digital times? Are we able to control how social media affects us?These were some of the questions explored during group conversations.

When co-designing possible solutions to make the internet a safer place for young people in Scotland, there was a clear emphasis on education. The group agreed that digital times require a new approach to digital and data literacy education. As argued by some of the young people in the group, it is important to encourage and promote young people's proactive engagement with the digital debates (e.g 5Rights Commission).

 

It felt that the ideas related to digital literacy and data education weren't just about learning stuff at school, but being able to explore and exchange ideas with friends, family and/or youth workers - both online and offline. For example, one person asked - "How come there are no digital-rights influencers on social media, where we could get latest updates?". Other participants argued that digital literacy learning takes place in multiple situations - when talking to a friend or watching the news. The idea that digital learning and (learning in the digital times) takes place outside the formal school setting has been disscussed by researchers. For example, the authors of the Connected Learning  say that meaningful learning is often interest-powered and peer-supported. It is clear that any future educational digital literacy/online safety interventions should not only be grounded in young people worlds and interests, but actually co-designed by them.

 

 

 

My clumsy conclusion: what I've learnt at the Empower's event.

This was supposed to be a short post outlining the work of Empower in Scotland. While writing it, I realised that none of it could not be summerised in 300 words. With the use of the three A's - abuse, anxiety and agency, I tried to organise my experience of the event. I hope this provides some useful contrubtion to the wider debate on young people's online safety in Scotland.

 

With this in mind, I'd like to mention my key learning from the event - the importance of shutting up and letting young people do the thinking and talking. I promise to improve on this one next time.


 

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Dr Alicja Pawluczuk

Digital Media Practitioner and Researcher with extensive experience of participatory media project design and facilitation both in Europe and South East Asia. Founder of digital storytelling educational collective www.digitalbeez.org. Associate Lecturer & PhD student at Edinburgh Napier University. Interested in Digital Youth Work/Literacy and Experiential Teaching Practice, ICT4D, Digital Inclusion, and Digital Activism. An active member of the Digital Youth Workers Network in Scotland. 

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