Enabling our children to deal with media

Interview with Uwe Buermann, pedagogical-therapeutic media advisor*

Current Concerns: Today, media are present everywhere in our daily life. For many parents, the question arises, how should their children acquire the necessary media competence. What does it take?

Uwe Buermann: We are living in the media age. It is good that way, but it is a challenge, as well. To begin with: we must get away from debates that lead to questions like: “Is the Internet good or bad, are smart phones good or bad?” This doesn’t get us any further. Lastly, the question “Which capabilities and skills must I have as a user, so that I can use the various devices and services in a sensible way?” is the one we need to ask. This question as well as the problems connected with it are ever-present. The whole problem of cyber-mobbing for instance, emphasizes that media competence is not as easy as we, parents, teachers and kindergarten teachers have been told over a long time. According to the motto: “We must bring the children into contact with the media as soon as possible and then media competence will happen by itself!” That is not really what things are like.

What do you consider to be the prerequisites of a competent media use?

With respect to that issue, we as adults, make a fatal transfer mistake, over and over again. I mean by this that we, the adults who use these devices privately and at work in a sensible way, automatically assume that our children behave just as sensibly and practically and use these things as we do. As long as we think in that way, we are sinning against our children, because we hardly ever know exactly what they are doing and what exactly they are looking for. Media competence is nothing that children acquire at the computer, rather they obtain it in the family and at school where they are led to knowledge and societal values. Only this way will they be able to use the media properly.

What do I need to know in order to use media correctly?

With respect to this question I always ask about the terms of usage in my presentations. Most of the time it turns out that there is rarely a smart phone user who knows the terms of use, be it Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagramm or has at least partially read and understood them. I also ask my audience, who has read his or her contract of employment or rental contract. The answer is clear: I am reading my working or rental contract because I might have to re-negotiate it eventually. However, the Facebook terms of use for instance, are not read, although they are legally binding. This is something that needs to be understood. In the case of Facebook I cannot negotiate, later. We know that about all Internet contracts. I can either accept or reject. In the Internet, the general terms and conditions appear, when I am already in the process of registering. That means, I have already decided to go along with the conditions and then the legalizing pages appear. That is clear to me. When I press the button “refuse”, I don’t accept, but when I begin to read, I will be more confused than informed; consequently I click on “accept”! I can understand all that.
But now think of your children! The question that we need to understand is: The generation, which is growing up in our time, signs already ten to twelve contracts per week. They are actually not allowed to do this but they are doing it anyway. With every App which they download, they accept the conditions of use and they sign a contract without having read one word of it. They learn this from us, we do it this way, too. If we now think of our children: when then the first rental contract or the first contract of employment is presented to them, how should they have the impulse to read even one word of this contract? That means, they will just sign their name just like they currently download an App and accept the conditions of use, without having read them. This is our responsibility.

You mention our responsibility as adults. Does that possibly concern the point in time at which we give a smart phone to our children and teenagers?

Yes, here as well. As I mentioned in the meeting, we commit certain collective mistakes in thinking as adults and children, as well. “At what age can one participate in WhatsApp?” I asked the children. At 16, because it is not allowed earlier, they answered. Next I asked, who had what device. Many have smart phones and so I asked the individual children: “Whose is it?” There they look at you embarrassedly: “It’s mine!” Then I always say: “Try again, let’s rewind.” Then interesting theories are brought forward: “Google?” With the time, the answers are closer to the truth: “My parents?” Already a bit better but still wrong. That’s just the point: One can buy a SIM card for a prepaid mobile phone anywhere without a problem. But, I must activate it with the Internet or with a telephone. And there I have to insert the personal data of a person who is at least 16 years old. Each SIM card is registered to one person and it remains that way. It is not the parents, it is either the father or the mother, who has signed. When I want to open an account for a mobile or smart phone, I need to be 18 and show an identification card. The device is registered to that person. The collective mistake in thinking is that even today parents still believe that they can just give their child such a present. It is legally impossible. It doesn’t work. They may lend it to whom they want, but the SIM card is and remains registered to him or her. That’s the point. With WhatsApp I don’t need to give any name or birth date at the point of registration. But I need a mobile number and because I can only get one of these at 16, it is legally understood that there is no person under 16 that can participate in WhatsApp. When there is a problem and a complaint regarding insult or sexting or whatever it may be, then the complaint is sent to the father or mother, the person whose telephone number is registered. This is not clear to a lot of people. We are responsible as adults for that what our children do with their devices. We have a parental duty of care for them.

Can we as parents protect our children?

This is a difficult question. Everybody who goes to the Apps-store or the Google-Playstore knows that there are no age requirements. Our children have access to all Apps, at least to all those that are free. Neither Google nor Apple nor Microsoft need to worry about child protection because legally there is no person under the age of 16 who can have access to these offers. The parents are liable for their children, it’s that easy.

We have a responsibility here as in other areas as well.

Yes, if you want to make a comparison, the situation is similar to that of a car. When I am the owner of a car, the vehicle is registered on my name. I can lend it to whom I like. But when the car is sighted by radar, I will receive the police protocol and am responsible. Exactly that happens with smart phones and mobiles. The other thing is that the smart phone and the iPod-Touch as well mean Internet access without monitoring. That is something we need to make clear to ourselves. With respect to the protective functions that are offered, one cannot depend on them because meanwhile for YouTube for instance, there are step by step directions for any smart phone on the market how to deactivate the parent control function. In practice, this means non-monitored Internet access.

What does this mean in practice?

For example this: All people have realised that during the last months IS terrorists decapitated several Western and Japanese journalists. All people know that, since it was reported in the media, and they know that these videos were put on YouTube. It is like that: we hear something like that and we find it so dreadful that we do not even have the idea to sit in front of the computer and watch the video on YouTube. Due to my meetings with youths I know that this is different with them. More than half of them have watched these videos whether we agree or not. And the point is – let us be honest – if we could have watched pornography when we were youngsters, we would have done so. We must not reproach the young ones. But now more than half of the boys and girls are doing it. That is part of the reality concerning smart phones. And technically we cannot do anything about that in the case of smart phones.

Thus young people have a different way of dealing with media?

Yes, they have. The youngsters do no longer mail and wait for the answer which might arrive within a couple of hours or days. With WhatsApp they know the actual status of their colleagues. If they see “online” and send a news, it will arrive now – and then – depending on the peergroup – they have about 5 to 10 minutes to answer. Otherwise there will be a problem. A lot of youngsters have their online account permanently open – even if that is forbidden at school – but they are always online.
From sleep research we know today that this online use of smart phones has also an effect on the sleep of children and youths. Often they wake up at night because they think that their mobile phone is vibrating. The phases of deep sleep are thus reduced which limits the processing of the matters they have learnt and gradually reduces their performance at school.

What advice are you giving to parents?

A very urgent recommendation for you is this: If you think one day that your child should have such a device, please introduce the rule from the very beginning that the devices are switched off at a certain time, age-adjusted, a time you agreed on, and that the device is handed over to the parents at that time and does not remain in his or her room. Your child will perhaps be grumbling – maybe – but it is in the interest of your child and even of the youth.

What conditions do you think appropriate to cede a smart phone to a youth?

That is the other thing that I would urgently recommend – in case you can still do it as a prevention: Smart phones must not be given on 24 December or on the child’s birthday. This encourages the wrong idea that it is a present. As I have told you already: You cannot give it as a present, that is not possible at all. That means that if you want your child to have a smart phone, please, do so on an ordinary workday.
And in your own interest, hand it over accompanied by a written leasing agreement. Meanwhile, you find drafts on the Internet. In this leasing agreement you define quite clearly at what conditions you are ready to put such a device at the child‘s disposal. Part of this agreement is that you as the parents are entitled at any time to have a look at the transcripts in order to verify what things your child has passed on in your name. The device functions in your name: If you do that from the very beginning, you will have a chance that it works that way, as well at the age of 15 and 16. And then the children also learn that it is not a matter of their private sphere because there is not private sphere on the Internet. And you can define precisely which things are allowed. “If I find out that you watch pornography, if I find out that you have to do with sexting, that you participate in bullying – even so by being silent – I will retain the device for a certain time.” If you agree on that from the very beginning, it will work.

And in case the children have already got such a device?

That is even more of a problem: I see it quite clearly that you cannot go home now and take the thing away. It will not work. There will be not other possibility than to have several talks and to try then to renegotiate and come to a regulation.
Another problem is all that data monitoring!
We must of course take all this data monitoring seriously. There are alternatives to WhatsApp. Of course I realize that I cannot just say: Delete WhatsApp! When the kids use it and have these group dynamics and structure, then I cannot just say, they should leave it. But privacy about WhatsApp, especially since it is part of Facebook, is a huge problem technically. With respect to data privacy it is in fact the worst App we currently have. Many people do not know this: In the last two enforced updates the camera law was added. That means that each time you start What’s App and the device has a front camera, it photographs the user. That Facebook handles all these photos bio-metrically, is well known. That is, even if I have no related profile picture, Facebook knows the face of the user. At the last enforced update in January this year, it happened that WhatsApp got a microphone access. Of course. That won’t take place permanently, no false panic, the data network would not allow it, but it is happening.

Are there any alternatives to WhatsApp?

The alternative, about which I told the students, is this: to my knowledge and in one’s best knowledge and belief this is Threema, a Swiss quality product whose programmers are situated in Zurich. Threema can do everything that WhatsApp can do – including forming groups, voice messages, pictures, text. The advantage is that data on the server are deleted automatically after two months, so no one can become confronted with problems in his professional life because of something he posted as a teenager. In Threema everything is encrypted “peer to peer”. Therefore Threema is the current alternative. There is no advertising and the data will not be disclosed to third parties. What more do you want? And “current status” means, of course: If you ever hear in the media that Threema has been purchased, then of course you have to change again. But it would be nice if you as a parent could animate your kids, if they currently use WhatsApp, to persuade their colleagues to switch over to Threema. This is an issue that I know well. If I tell a young person, move to Threema and his colleagues won’t do it, it is of no use. Therefore today I animate the young people to send the last WhatsApp message of their life to all their contacts saying this: “I’m not stupid, I’ll go along here no longer, you will meet me at Threema now”.

Let’s come to the data monitoring again, an important issue!

Data monitoring must be considered seriously as well as data analysis. The arrogance that exists in the adults’ world, must stop. Repeatedly one gets a lot like: “I do not care, what they monitor on the Internet, I am no terrorist, I have nothing to hide!” All right, however, we must be aware of the responsibility, for instance, if we distrubute school presentation topics at school. If I give a pupil the task: “Do a presentation on IS-terrorists”, and I let him simply go to the Internet, he may get on the black list of the United States. That is a fact, and I as a teacher, am responsible, though not legally, but morally responsible. And it is the same for you as a parent: If you have the habit of searching everything on the Internet. Depending on the topic you are embarking on a minefield. You cannot surf anonymously, forget it. You have a duty of care.

Do we have the transparent person ...?

I would like to make it briefly clear by using the example of Google. You all have used Google before and know that YouTube belongs to Google. Then you know that your children are dealing with Google, more or less daily. Now you enter a search term and type “sch”. And while you are typing, you get a maximum of ten proposals. And now it is clear, if I type “sch” or you as well, every one of us will receive a different list of suggestions. Have you ever thought about that? It does not matter what computer I am using. I get my suggestions, although I have not signed on. What is the secret behind this? Every key click is forwarded to Google, eBay, Amazon, etc.. What applies to the keyboard, is also true for your mouse. Google knows exactly whether you read the list of results. They see this observing the scrolling speed. The internal profile of Facebook stores, how many minutes and seconds you have been on which chronicle and which paragraphs of a chronicle you have read and which not. The real secret behind it is – just as everyone has his or her own, absolutely clearly identifiable handwriting – everyone who has learned typing after he has mastered it, has an absolutely clearly identifiable typing signature. When I am visiting you, after two minutes when I am using your computer, the Google system knows that it is me who is sitting at your PC. The system immediately recognises who sits at your PC and sends corresponding advertising. The Internet has long been individualised.

So the adults’ duty of care for their children is at the core?

Yes, on the one hand regarding the data which are being collected about children or teenagers. The traces on the Internet are inextinguishable. The older we are, the closer we are to the end of our lives, the more we can afford to be indifferent. We have got our work, we have got our home, we have got our insurance. But I remind you again of your duty of care for the children. More and more personnel managers from companies use these data of Internet usage for their decision on who is recruited. Meanwhile it is evident that it plays a role with insurances. Thus, in Germany, theoretically a company can ask the policyholder of a home insurance policy in the event of a burglary, whether he is in Facebook or WhatsApp. If he says no, and it turns out his answer was untrue, he has no insurance claim. And if he says yes, then the insurance company may purchase the communication of the past three days from Facebook. Everything this member has posted on Facebook or WhatsApp! And if he has written somewhere: “We are off the weekend for three days”, this is considered as a gross negligent conduct and the insurance cover expires. Concerning this matter we have not yet a precedent, but that will come in the near future. That is like talking to the answering machine: “We are on Mallorca for the next two weeks.” In that case the insurance coverage also expires. This is just the beginning, other insurance companies such as liability insurances etc. will refer to the stored data of the customers, so as not to have to pay. We have to expect these things with regard to our children, as well. So please do not take it lightly!

What then would be the way to achieve media competence?

What I said at the beginning, I meant quite seriously. I am not saying, smart phones are bad. I am not saying the Internet is bad. It is quite clear to me that all these devices hold their advantages in themselves. Remember what I have just said. The question we have to ask is the following: “What skills and abilities do I need as a user to deal with the media sensibly?” I am not saying I must not use Facebook. But I must consider well, what I am writing. If we take all that into account, we have a dilemma. And that is what I criticise about teaching media competence. It is reduced to the question “Do I know how to use the equipment?” That is no media competence, even three-year-old children can do that! But in these matters that I have tried to present here, it may perhaps become clear that it is about completely different questions, that are much more important. “Do I have the ability to judge in the sense of self-assessment?” “Can I realise what topics I can look up on the Internet and in what case I’d rather go to the library?” “What topics can I discuss with my colleagues on the Internet, what should I rather discuss from mouth to ear, or on the phone or by mail?” “There are things I should rather write in a letter than on the Internet, even in the year 2015.” We, as adults aren’t aware of all these connections, how should 14-year- old be! We have all experienced that with being 14 the primary goal in life is to be 16, and the Utopians in class think of 18, and everything after that is science fiction. Of course, I can stand in front of the teenager and say, “Think of your career!” Our parents and teachers did the same. It gets in and there off again. Now we have a historical dilemma, again. We were able to permit ourselves to do so. We all did a lot of nonsense, too. The nice thing is, no one knew what we were doing. Even our partners didn’t know what stories we told them. The problem of today’s young generation is, if they use the Internet and the smart phones without inhibition, as they do at present, they are potentially open to blackmail, all along the line. That’s the problem and that means, this rule “smart phone not before 16” is not only legally, but also developmental-psychologically correct. For us it should be obvious – and I know it’s completely against the trend – but if I give a smart phone to a 12-year-old, then one or another disaster is inevitable (whether sexting, bullying or problems in workforce). The question is really just which of these disasters it will be.

In other words, we adults need to act preventively, predictively and take our responsibility and our duty of care seriously?

Yes, we can only hope that all future parents will remain more steadfast than the parents’ generation, that has been hit now. Peer pressure has always existed in that age. Once it was designer clothes, next skateboards and now the smart phone. We cannot prevent it, at all. But that it has now become the smart phone, is homemade. There was one parental couple in each class community that came up with the idea, to please their child with a smart phone; then there were two, then three. All are running home saying, “everybody has got a smart phone, I need one, too.” And one parental home after the other gives in. Why? Because we have all been contaminated with this slogan, “The one who does not introduce the media to his child early enough, spoils his future.” We have to realise, it’s just exactly the opposite! The children don’t have to learn it in their early years. Another example is driving a car. The possession of the driver’s licence is a professional advantage in Switzerland, too. But no-one has ever demanded to attach pedals at the tables of the first class, to let the children playfully learn driving a car. Neither do we have a discussion “driving licence at 14” in Switzerland. If we asked a thirteen-year-old, “would you prefer to drive yourself?” we could be sure that he took it seriously and started to drive off. We wouldn’t discuss that because we know that you need more than knowing which leverage to use in the car, in order to participate in the traffic. I must be able to act with foresight. I can not do that at the age of 14, quite a few can’t do it at 20, either. Therefore there is an agreement: driving licence at 18!

Yet, the children are with us in the car …

Of course, that does not mean that we do not take our children in the car. That’s the point. To me it is not about a wrong preservation pedagogy. But, the way I drive my children through the area, not letting them sit behind the wheel, the same way we should handle the uncontrollable medium Internet. If my child has a question and I do not know the answer, then as a father I’ll look it up on the Internet, but not my 8-year-old child. Just as teachers use material from the Internet to prepare their lessons, nowadays. Teachers select them like they do with other master copies. This step from, “we use the Internet together with and for our children” to “I let my child use the Internet independently,” we should adapt to the development of children.

In other words, we must take our duty of care seriously, here as well!

Well, we have failed here for a whole generation, let’s face it, we failed. The children have got the equipment. For this generation we can only hope for damage limitation. But we should learn from it as soon as possible so that we do not make the same mistake for the following age groups. In this respect we need to rethink. Real media competence, that we all wish from the bottom of our hearts, begins with media abstinence – not in the sense of a preservation pedagogy. No, in the sense of teaching the abilities you need to use media sensibly.

Mr Buermann, thank you very much for the interview.     •

(Interview Eliane Gautschi)

London School of Economics study shows: Cell phone ban in schools leads to better school performance and more equal opportunities

ev. A study by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics examined the influence of how schools dealt with mobile phones on the performance of students aged 11 to 16 years. The study showed that the academic performance of students increased by an average of 6.41% after a cell phone ban, however, those of weak pupils by 14.23%, under the condition that the ban is also respected in practice. The study reads: “We found that following a phone use ban, student test scores improved by 6.41% of a standard deviation. Our results indicate that there are no significant gains in student performance if a ban is not widely complied with. Furthermore, this effect is driven by the most disadvantaged and underachieving pupils. Students in the lowest quartile of prior achievement gain 14.23% of a standard deviation, whilst, students in the top quartile are neither positively nor negatively affected by a phone ban. The results suggest that low-achieving students are more likely to be distracted by the presence of mobile phones, while high achievers can focus in the classroom regardless of the mobile phone policy. This also implies that any negative externalities from phone use do not impact on the high achieving students. Schools could significantly reduce the education achievement gap by prohibiting mobile phone use in schools, and so by allowing phones in schools, New York [which cancelled a 10-year ban on mobile phones in March 2015 so as to increase the equality of opportunities, now instead] may unintentionally increase the inequalities of outcomes. We include several robustness checks such as an event study, placebo bans, test for changes in student intake and range of alternative outcome measures with the approval of the phones in schools unintentionally inequality increases the school success.“ (p. 3)
It is not difficult to understand that students who have trouble to concentrate on the subject matter, are distracted by the mobile phone – distracted as well as by making calls while driving and thereby increaseing the likelihood of accidents. Particularly with regard to the equality of opportunity therefore a total ban on cell phones in the school would be of great advantage and – like the authors say rightly (p. 18) – a cost-effective way to reduce inequalities.

Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy.
Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance. London School of Economics and Political Science. Centre for Economic Performance. London 2015

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