Teens and the Internet, what are they learning?

Teens and the Internet, what are they learning?

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In his latest work, Educating for the Internet Age, specialised educator, Father Jean-Marie Petitclerc analyses adolescent turmoil caused by new technologies. Interview by Amicie Rabourdin.

Has the advent of digital technology really brought about great changes in children’s education?

This is not only a technological revolution, but also a cultural one!
It changes the relationship between the two pillars of any culture: space – young people can communicate with anyone, wherever they are and whatever the distance – and time – the tyranny of immediacy. It changes the way we communicate: face to face we see and take into account the emotions of the person we are talking to; by text you can send insulting, destructive messages without being aware of the other person’s reactions. It also changes the way we work, through having access to all knowledge, entertainment, the option to play alone or with others, without being around a table. With SMS, teenagers never leave the world of their friends; it’s like a bubble that follows them everywhere. The very particular language of textspeak generates new ways of communicating.

What other challenges does it present?

The founders of the Internet hoped to build a Utopian world without boundaries or borders. Yet, some of these have a structuring effect. The first lies between the incidental and the fundamental; the word of an expert who has spent five years studying the subject does not have the same value as someone questioned randomly.

The second boundary is between the virtual and the real. The danger of some video games lies not just in their violence, but also in the fact that, because of technological developments, the imaginary is indistinguishable from the real. In the fairy stories of my childhood – themselves quite violent, (a little girl face to face with a wolf in her grandmother’s bed, or a little boy facing an ogre!), the use of the expression ‘Once upon a time’ clearly separated fantasy from reality. If a young person is not helped by an adult to make this distinction, confusion can occur.  
A major difference between these two worlds is suffering; present in the real world, absent in the virtual world! We see the fragility of young people who have not understood this boundary, including those indoctrinated by Jihad; or those who are involved in the world of pornographic films, which do not reflect reality but the director’s fantasies, among other things.

The third boundary separates the private from the public, what we want others to see, and what we want to keep private. With social networking, young people sometimes go from one register to the other without realising. This confusion, as can be seen, can cause enormous damage.

Do educators and parents still have a role to play in the face of the power of the Internet?

Definitely! If today all knowledge is directly accessible through the Internet, the role of the teacher is to help young people structure and organise it. This is the very essence of their role. Similarly educators and parents should offer a structured environment to enable the young person to master and use these tools wisely. Once children are at Middle School (11-15 years), it seems appropriate that the computer should be in a communal room, not a child’s bedroom. To avoid addiction, parents should create a schedule of use to structure time spent playing computer games and real life. In Valdocco, the home I used to be Director of, young people were obliged to hand over their laptops to the educator at night. It also seems essential to me, and this also applies to adults, to switch off your laptop to spend quality time together during the day, especially when sitting down to eat.

How should we view these new technologies?

The Internet offers tremendous opportunities to access knowledge and communication. Imagine every High School student with access to his country’s largest library, in his own bedroom! With one click he can open a book, and with another click he can access the quote he needs. He can also keep in contact with other young people he meets elsewhere. But be aware that these technologies structure children differently. Sitting at a screen, an adult wonders which key to press to achieve such and such a change, while his little nephew has already tried them all and found the correct one! We adults have grown up acquiring knowledge. Young people are growing up in a world of experimentation. It’s something new, without a positive or negative moral connotation. Let us consider the Internet as a tool, let us rejoice in the new possibilities this offers, whilst warning against the dangers. We shouldn’t think of it as some kind of mythical spirit that can transform Mankind.

The main thing, and young people are well aware, is this: a virtual encounter does not have the same value as a real encounter. Two beings sharing their emotions in the presence of each other is a source of joy, with a much more intense level of communication than a few messages on a touch screen. In the words of Abbé Pierre, to live is to love. Love cannot be conveyed by virtual messages, but through a real encounter of two beings.  

Jean-Marie Petitclerc - Quick Bio

  • 1953 Born
  • 1971 Entered the École Polytechnique
  • 1976 Takes first vows with the Salesians of Don Bosco
  • 1978 Specialised Educator
  • 1984 Ordained as a Priest
  • 1995 Foundation of the Valdocco Organisation in Argenteuil (95)
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