When I was eight, I won our school's “Trick or Treat for UNICEF” throw down. I scoured the neighborhood for hours, wheedling coins and Snickers bars out of polite neighbors and adding them to my little orange box. By the end of the night, the hoard of pennies and nickels had broken the box at the seams, and I presented it to my teacher wrapped in a sustaining nest of duct tape.

The reward for all of this was a trip to UNICEF headquarters. Somewhere in my parent's house there sits a billfold stuffed full of pictures of the wall art, the cafeteria, the library-- all of the things that as a child I found interesting. At eight, I understood that UNICEF were the good guys, that they fought AIDS and built wells, and that they were kind of like the non-mouse version of the Rescue Aid Society.

But beyond saving Penny from Madame Medusa, UNICEF strives to help children and mothers in all aspects of their lives, including the digital.

As part of their ongoing efforts to support children the world over, UNICEF recently came out with a study entitled “A Global Agenda for Children's Rights in the Digital Age.” At 76 pages and written like your psych major friend's thesis, it's not exactly a page turner, but at its core lie some very important ideas:

  • More and more children are using internet and communication technologies (ICTs) in their daily lives and for more and more of them the use of this technology is something normal-- taken for granted.
  • Developing countries are seeing a slow but undeniable increase in the use of ICTs.
  • Children face dangers and complications whenever they step online-- and those dangers are ill understood by the adults responsible for teaching them to stay safe.

UNICEF wants to help these children and their caretakers understand how to use ICTs safely and productively, and help use them to their fullest potential.There's just one or two problems:

 

  1. Most knowledge has been obtained in the global north, and it's relevance to the global south is largely untested.
  2. Although many valuable initiatives are underway worldwide, the lack of comparable baseline data and policy and programme evaluation makes it hard to learn from the experiences of others or to share best practices (4)

The report goes on to detail recommendations for how to gather information, problems with existing data, and what information has never been gathered at all. It points out that much of our research into how children used the web was conducted during the “web 1.0” days, before social media and the Sharing Revolution began. For an organization like UNICEF, the report argues, moving forward without baseline data and research leaves them without a leg to stand on: in order to help children navigate the internet, they first have to know how they're using it.

It's an idea that applies to libraries and librarians as well: to help, we first have to understand. Without understanding, our actions, no matter how well-intentioned, will see their impact hobbled. You've seen the results of assumptions in your daily interactions: a parent who wants the library computers to be monitored; a teacher who bans laptops and iPads from their classroom; a librarian who thinks the computer table is a waste of space. All of them are acting based on what they assume kids are doing online, whether that's checking in online and checking out IRL, tempting shady PSA-worthy predators, or cyber bullying their peers.* And in some cases they're absolutely right; kids are kids, and they do ill-conceived things online sometimes. That's what they have adults for-- to help them make good decisions, and give them the tools to face down their bad ones.

One of the harder things can be getting teens to actually tell you what they're doing online. It requires more than a survey, or a one time sit down; it requires trust and an established relationship, and there's the rub. Whether teacher, parent, or librarian, to ask teens a question and expect a serious answer, you first have to know the teens and get them to understand you as a person who will listen. The Future of Libraries report puts it beautifully:

“To support their learning—personal, work-related, and academic—library staff must connect with teens as individuals. As one participant noted: “Many teens don't have relationships with non-supervisory adults. . . . Teens need more adults who are not ‘in charge' of them” (participant, YALSA Summit). This theme was echoed by other participants, who used words like allies, mentors, coaches, and partnerships to describe the relationships that library staff must develop with teens in order to provide effective and substantive programs and services” (10)

Forming these kinds of relationships with our teens is paramount if we want to help them in their needs as patrons. As librarians, we're uniquely positioned to have this conversation. We monitor and guide, but can't ground them. We help with homework, but can't give them a grade. Our interactions with our kids can offer them not only a safe place to be, but a person to talk to without fear or reprisal or judgement, and an advocate who can communicate their needs to the library or school administration.

Of course, receiving an answer to the question of “how do you use the internet” is only the tip of the iceberg. The internet has made us a globally connectable community, but we are still creatures of flesh and soil and our geographical and social differences mean we use the internet in different ways, and can face different dangers while on it. Answers need context; you have to understand teens' ' backgrounds, their goals, what their home life is like, who their friends are. You have to be aware of the geographic area you live in, the socioeconomic makeup of the community, the diversity of the population, and a hundred other factors that come into play.

Basically: understanding people is hard, and understanding them well enough to be able to effectively guide them is even harder. But understanding is the first and most necessary step to educating; you must grok before you can lead.

How are you having this discussion with your teens and patrons? Do you think it's a conversation worth having at all?

 

 

*Because we all know adults never spend too much time on their iPhones, check Instagram during meetings, or post nasty things on online forums.

 

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