I’ve been at home a few days lately due to a little health thing. (Don’t worry, I’m fine!) It’s given me the chance, when I could, to do a bit of extra reading. More than I’d usually do during a Term 1 week. The book I’ve been delving into is Susan Greenfield’s Mind Change – How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brain and it’s both illuminating and worrying.

Mind Change

The main thrust of the book is that we need to use scientific evidence and research into the brain to see the impact (both good and bad) of technology use on the human brain. Then we need to make decisions about how best to guide our own use – and especially the use of tech by our children – in order to make the most of technology without causing damage to, in many ways, our most precious organ.

Greenfield doesn’t seek to be an alarmist, though many of her ‘soundbites’ have been taken and thrown into the crazed mass of 24 hour media, chewed up and spat back at her. She doesn’t come across as an ivory-tower academic in her interviews but she certainly doesn’t try to boil it down: there are hard, complex and deep issues to discuss here and they can’t be solved in the length of a tweet.

As someone whose very role is to promote the effective and meaningful use of technologies to enhance and amplify learning, it’s often hard to read information that shows the detrimental impact (or at least correlations) of technology and behaviour. For example, bullying on the internet or “cyberbullying” is an extraordinarily hard nut to crack. Partly because it’s not just one nut, but an orchard of trees filled with them: each issue of misbehaviour or harm is between different people in different contexts. Partly because those charged with managing the issue are often not trained or deeply experienced in the technologies being used and try to apply other forms of behaviour management strategies that are less effective because of it. There is some great work being done from many quarters on this and I hope we can build relationships in the real world that help to dampen the urge to act with dispassion and animosity online.

An idea linked to this that Greenfield clearly heard me talk about at a TeachMeet (kidding) is that we now can have multiple versions of ourselves online and ‘offline’ and that our minds are changing because we can apply an entirely different set of ethics and thinking patterns in each domain. We might look at things or say things or do things online that we would never do – or at least hesitate to do – in real life. Whether this is because of real and immediate consequences that mostly occur in real life, or because we are able to be more anonymous online, or some other reason, it’s important to note that these are not different people but are different versions of us.

If you sledge someone using an anonymous website, that is not some distinct and separate person doing it on your behalf… it is you. It may be an aspect of you that is momentary or reactionary and fades away almost instantly… but that is you. Just like the sensory experiences of our environments help shape our minds and how we engage with reality in future, our experiences (some sensory) online do the same: we build new versions of ourselves based on how we act – or don’t – in online environments.

As educators, I think we need to not only be aware of these multiple facets of our 21st century lives and those of our students, friends and family. We need to be actively helping students find and engage with positive experiences online and face-to-face so that they are overwhelmed with responsible, meaningful and supportive moments and can make better choices when confronted with the option to harm or to help others.

Some useful information can be found at the ACMA website on internet safety. I’d love to hear positive stories about how schools, families and individuals are helping build relationships and support young people in this new reality.