Parents play an important role in shaping the passions and future motivations of their daughters.
In my short talk for the Swindon edition of the International Women’s Day celebrated last Saturday I was asked to will look at the current research into the reality of modern family and challenges parents currently face in the new technological environment. I did not manage to deliver the full talk so here is everything it was supposed to contain.
First of all let’s clarify that our current public discourse about children, coding, Internet and the situation of girls is not based on informed research and facts but general assumptions, myths and often fears.
I talk to parents about safe Internet practice and in the mist of the current public though the web is dangerous and so children should not access it at all or the access should be limited.
Online gaming is addictive. Screen time is detrimental. The overall sentiment is negative.
So on one hand we have parents worrying about their children accessing the Internet. On the other children and youth growing up in a new world of tech, unable to discuss it with their parents.
On one had we have parents worried about their children’s future – education and career. On the other we have children lost without any guidance on it, because parents are struggling with a huge shift in the market due to technology too.
Which posses a risk that girls in particular might be affected.
So I suggest slightly shifting our approach from assumptions to facts and from purely negative sentiment to more balanced views. I suggest basing our parental choices on informed decisions, grounded in research done by those who understand:
(1) the web and coding,
(2) current situation of younger generations accessing the web and their motivation
(3) current and future changes in job market and career building
(4) gender issues.
(1) The Internet is changing the way we function as society and Susan Greenfield from Lincoln College, Oxford University, is conducting a lot of research on what is the state of that research. Basically we are still not sure how the web is changing us – one thing is certain: we allow it to happen. We do not think about the consequences of our online work in practical terms, we make assumptions and our research is really poor. So she is trying to change that and so should we.
I believe that as parents we need to stop making assumptions and investigate how our children work with the web and how it is impacting them – in a negative but also positive way. We need to learn the web ourselves and teach children to use it effectively, pro-actively, before their habits are shaped by the new technologies. We need to start thinking about the web in terms of passive consumption and active, aware usage.
(2) Sonia Livingstone (in London) and Danah Boyd (at MIT) are both conducting interesting research into the reality of young children and youth online. Sonia Livingstone is involved in EU research of how children access the web and what they actually do online. First of all, her EU studies with a large sample of young people and small children show that despite of our assumptions many young people are active online. The major problem is the fact that they cannot connect with their parents around those online actives, there is no dialogue. Dana Boyd’s results explain the complexity of youth online but also show that in many cases young people learn to adjust online options to their needs and learn how to remain safe forming online groups and private networks.
(3) I am not familiar with research in this area but we do see examples of initiatives and startups investigating the shift from traditional career building to the new world dominated by online presences, collaborative work and generally markets changed by the social web. Barclays and Ogilvy in the UK formed dedicated programmes to support young people in the new approach to career building where their skills become important very early on in their lives. Startup https://www.gapjumpers.me/ investigates the idea of small internships, projects and skill based hiring. Recruiters include Googling and LinkedIn research almost by default nowadays.
(4) Finally gender issues – with the Woman Equality Party in the UK the conversation around gender issues and equality is back on our agenda. Thanks to the work of Dr. Sue Black and her Techmums network coding is now thought much earlier on at schools. Startups supporting girl coders are popping up at all major coding and web events. Increasingly many tech companies look back and review their very own approach to gender too.
So what does it all mean to use parents? I know it hard to study all those areas in much dept, but we need to ensure one thing: that we do not make assumptions about the present and future of our girls but investigate the fast changing areas of technology. We really do not know how our children will become successful and what success in tech industry is going to mean for them. But what we know is that we love them, wish them well and we do have the ability to empower them today. We can motivate, we can inspire, we can encourage interest in tech, in coding, in effective usage of tech. We can teach them making informed choices. But it is only possible if we stop following public discourse but dive in a bit deeper into the actual impact of tech on our children and open up the dialogue with them.
We might not have all answers, we never will, but together with our younger one we might just work it all out. They need our support, our trust and our guidance, not judgement.
Update: In our questions to the panel we had a question about reasons why girls are not continuing with career in coding. I think there are many but I would personally like to turn the argument around and look at already existing good solutions for all fours areas of my argument and suggest that we should replicate good examples, not just focus on stating the obvious. Yes, women are still in minority in tech industry. They are still underpaid and very few become leaders. But how can we change that effectively? What are the working projects and how can we replicate them? This is what I would like to see more of in discussions about the state of girls in coding.
Big thank you to the organisers for the invitation.