My computers and, by proxy, the internet, are an extension of myself. It would not be entirely hyperbolic if I said I am almost always online.
At work, I am always connected, processing words and researching things online, reading stories, answering e-mails and keeping myself informed.
At home, you can usually find me sitting on my sofa, virtually glued to my laptop. I blog, read the news, browse Facebook, chat to friends overseas and watch the latest internet memes on Youtube.
And in those ‘in-between’ times? Well, my iPhone ensures I can check my e-mail every five minutes, some may say compulsively. I have not found a way to be online in my sleep yet, but if Apple were to release an iDream prototype, I would sign myself up as a tester.
Yes, I am one of those people who has not only embraced technology, but taken it out on a couple of dates.
And I did this all alone. When I was at secondary school, though computers were already starting to come into their own, and although we had a computer lab, our educators did not do much to actively integrate technology into our lessons.
Rather, we were discouraged from typing out our essays and assignments. The aforementioned computer lab was always locked and off limits and there was no way we could use Google to help us do our work (Wikipedia did not yet exist).
Although social media was still in its infancy when I was in secondary school, I still felt my education was somewhat stunted by the fact that we did not regularly conduct lessons on those brand new, shiny computers in the lab – actually, we only ever touched those computers for a couple of, well, computer lessons and to sit for our ECDL exams, which were encouraged, but not compulsory.
How stunted, then, must today’s secondary school students feel when they live in a reality when social media is everything and almost everybody is connected to the web.
And how are students to cope with the transition to University, which has a symbiotic relationship with all things related to technology – where your assignments are to be typed out in specific styles, your news and results are sent to your .edu.mt e-mail address (which is not the most user-friendly e-mail to access even if you are computer-literate), and where you absolutely must rely on the internet if you ever want to begin writing a dissertation?
The issue at hand is not that we have to teach children how to use all these tools – they are the children of the information age and technology is a language they are more fluent in than we will ever be.
Rather, we must educate our children on how to use these tools ethically and to their advantage, how to benefit from them and how to prevent online abuse and bullying.
Our approach to things like Facebook and online chatting, when it comes to children, is not unlike our approach to sex and drugs. Rather than sitting the students down and educating them, we skim over the topics, using euphemistic language whenever possible and hoping that, just perhaps, if we ignore it, it will go away.
I remember discovering mIRC with my friends when I was 13 and learning the hard way that lots of people there didn’t really want to talk about what kind of music we liked or what we were learning in school. I remember signing off in disgust and vowing never to log in again.
But what of those children who let themselves be charmed by these people because they are too young and misinformed to know better?
When I was a child we were warned not to accept sweets from strangers. Do they teach children today not to provide their personal information to anybody online?
What we should be doing is including Facebook in these students’ daily routine. Let them have a profile, let them express themselves creatively, let them interact with friends, but – and this is important – teach them how to edit their privacy settings to ensure no unwanted attention is received.
We should be encouraging students to set up an online journal or blog – again with customised privacy settings – wherein they can practise their writing skills and reading skills, as well as feel as though they are part of a community. I should know – my old online journal got me through my angst-ridden teenage years.
An online journal, a Twitter feed or a Facebook page could also be used by the educator to post information and exercises for his students. It could also ensure the student has a means of communicating with his or her teacher and with other students while doing homework or while studying.
Rather than forbidding the use of Wikipedia, we must teach children to understand the online information commons, let them know how to contribute to it while teaching them to view everything through the glasses of an optimistic skeptic. And while we’re at it, perhaps we can teach them all about plagiarism and why it doesn’t pay you.
Why do we continue to pretend we live in a world where paper, pens and files still matter? This hurts me more than it hurts you – I am a stationery nut – but how much easier would it be on the children (and on their backs!) if all they had to carry to school every day was one laptop rather than three files, seven heavy textbooks, six copy books, a pencil case, and folders with print-outs in them?
We should be teaching children how to avoid putting themselves in dangerous positions online; we should educate them about the reality of online predators. It is better to arm them with the tools and the smarts to protect themselves than to avoid the topic completely and let them figure it out for themselves.
I predict a time where most offices will be obsolete and where all business will be carried out online. And I do not believe this future to be too far off. In order for us to be able to make the best of this situation, we should be teaching our children about internet etiquette in the same way our parents taught us about table manners.
This article was first published in The Sunday Times.