Of comfort zones and connections

Port wine ships  in Porto, Portugal (J.Vickery)

After 5 years of grad school I tend to feel quite comfortable and in my zone when I’m at academic conferences. There are regular faces and names I know will be there, topics on which I feel confident discussing, and discourses with which I’m quite familiar. However, spending the week at the International School of Digital Transformation (ISDT) has challenged the familiarity and comfort I normally have at conferences and workshops. This is partly due to the truly international nature of the School (Brazil, France, UK, India, Columbia, Egypt, Canada, etc.), which does lead to some communication challenges (not in a negative way, but just different than conferences I attend in the States). This is is also because “digital media” is such a large area of study that spans so many different fields, each with their own discourses, agendas, and priorities. So at times I feel very on the fringe of a conversation and tend to observe rather than actively participate. Closely related, the School brings together activists, techies, journalists, practitioners, and scholars into the same space, which is wonderful but also challenging. So while I’m enjoying it and learning a lot, I have nonetheless been feeling a bit out of my element at times. 

However, on Tuesday afternoon two of the presenters – Graham Attwell and Christina Costa – conducted a “practice what you preach” session in which they taught 50 people how to produce a live online radio show in fewer than 2 hours. After making some initial decisions regarding topics and roles, we broke into smaller groups to decide the actual content of the program. My group had 4 minutes to discuss children and digital media, which of course is my area of study. It was really fun hearing everyone’s different perspectives about the topic and led to some interesting conversations. In the end we decided to do a Q&A format in which several of us provided a short one minute sound bite. My question was about issues of risk (of course). I threw together as much information as I could possibly cram into merely one minute but it was apparently very well received. I had several people come up to me afterwards and tell me how much they liked what I had to say; one lady went so far as to say it was her favorite!  This was really encouraging and frankly unexpected. 

Porto, Portugal (by J. Vickery)

The entire activity was fun (if not a bit nerve-racking as I hadn’t intended to be on a live streaming broadcast), but it helped push me out of my comfort zone – a push I was needing. I also met people working on very promising and innovative projects – people such as Ademar Aguiar, who is developing  exciting collaborative software for children, parents, and schools (Schoooools.com), which teaches children how to responsibly use the internet while also respecting their privacy and autonomy. So in addition to finding the presentation fun and informative, I also got to know people better and am now more comfortable participating in the sessions. The radio podcast should be up some time later today, but in the meantime, here’s the little blurb I wrote/reported. 

Q: We hear a lot about children engaging in risky behaviors online, how should we approach the topic of risk?

A: Often children and social media are discussed within a framework of panic and protection – we are concerned about bullying, sexting, predators, and pornography. And while these issues are important, they are often over hyped and tend to lead to restrictive policies and the naturalization of surveillance practices which actually tend to inhibit children’s opportunities.

Certainly schools and parents have a responsibility to protect children, however we must accept that risk is a normal and unavoidable part of life. Therefore we must teach our children to evaluate and handle acceptable levels of risk. So rather than merely restricting their access and rights online, policies should focus on empowering and educating children about ethical media use. That is, we need to teach them how to become responsible citizens online. 

The past 2 days have been really fun. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people from all over who are all working on fascinating and promising projects and research (including several working on/with children). Last night we took a bus out to Guimaraes, toured an ancient castle and palace. We had a lovely dinner in the palace and enjoyed a jazz band. It was an enjoyable evening with good company, good music, good wine, and good food.  We’ve got 2 days left, I’m looking forward to them but also looking forward to being done and going home. It’s been an intense week with lots of panels and conversations and thinking! 

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