social media, bullying and vulnerability – Day 1 of NCAB conference 2012

Please forgive my predictability. After a further lengthy blog silence, I’m spurred into a post by conference inspiration, this time in the form of the National Centre Against Bullying Conference currently being held in Melbourne. It’s not that I don’t get inspired at other times, just that the flavour of inspiration that comes from conferences seems to be just the right type to mould into a blog post.

I will admit a slight trepidation at attending, worried that my obvious leaning towards technology experimentation might clash with some of the messages I was going to hear. While those of us who experiment and explore educational technology on a daily basis know how much it can enhance the learning experience, sometimes people are overwhelmed with real and imagined dangers and allow these to overtake any benefits.

However, from the first words of the opening speeches, I was pleasantly surprised. As part of the housekeeping, we were all encouraged to keep our phones on (turned to silent) and were given the twitter hashtag and heartfelt encouragement to use it to continue the conversation online. Those new to this technology were offered support to set up accounts and join in. A very promising start.

The clear and consistent message I heard from the opening speeches onward was that technology has a positive role to play in young people’s lives and the key to tackling the dangers is to embrace the idea of digital citizenship and educate and support our students through such a framework. This message was echoed by all of those involved in the opening speeches and the tone set was overwhelming positive – Minister for Education Martin Dixon urged us not to throw out opportunities just because of the potential for risk and the very articulate Silje Anderson-Cooke gave us a youth perspective of the digital world.

Dr Colleen McLaughlin followed this with a keynote on bullying as experienced by children with special educational needs and disabilities, raising important issues about whether policies and interventions in schools were meeting the needs of these students.

The keynotes were rounded out by Professor Donna Cross who gave insights into a younger age group and their experiences of online and offline bullying. The research findings that face to face bullying sharply rises (and cyberbullying starts) at around Grade 4 or 5 wasn’t particularly surprising but the strategies she explored about how to deal with this should be something that all schools and parents are reminded of. Play has a vital role in helping young children explore and experiment with social norms and expected behaviours yet there is a conflict between time dedicated to play and time dedicated to more formal learning. She raised a point as well about treating a student’s social mistakes in the same way we would treat a learning mistake – with support, guidance and as an opportunity to develop a skill rather than something to be punished. A lot of food for thought….and all before lunch!

The afternoon sessions were equally filled with information, questions and points to ponder. Clare Rafferty and Elyse Gill talked about their journey towards eSmart accreditation and how they enlisted the help of students as eSmart ambassadors to communicate and engage younger students. Some great ideas and powerful practice of students as mentors for other students.

Greg Gebhart of ACMA┬ápresented on ‘Circles of friendship’ and how to approach the conversation with students about the different levels of friendship they have in online environments. Again, the positive tone was clearly evident and Greg spoke of the important social role that technology plays in young people’s lives. It’s not about banning social networks, it’s about making students aware of some of the risks and effective strategies to mitigate them. Teaching them about circles of friendship and getting them to identify ‘randoms’ on the outer periphery is a valuable first step and, with adequate supervision and open lines of communication with adults around them, goes a long way to helping them navigate and get the best out of their online life.

So, overall, great first day and I’m looking forward to whatever day 2 shall bring…