Tuesday, 04 August 2009

Friends and screens Just in case there's a quiet period newswise, journalists know how to get religious leaders to say provocative things to kick off debates. So the catholic archbishop of Westminster makes comments about friendship and about social networking sites, risking a martyrdom of jokes from atheists about having imaginary friends, and from the connected about confessions and screens. Zapping via Google (mum, look at me) I find some of his words joyfully misinterpreted, and various commentators following the problematic tendency to generalise very broadly about young people when the issues are quite subtle, fluid and important. But still, it's not too impressive if a prominent religious figure has only just detected a 'rise in individualism'. Does news not travel quickly in Westminster? Nonetheless I'm interested in, and I welcome, the way the archbish touched upon some themes that have bothered me lately in talking to young people: the idea of loyalty, the question of 'transient' relationships (not sure about his phrase 'impoverished friendships'), and the part played in this by the dominance of consumption as a way of life. Not all young people struggle with notions of loyalty - to brands, media, friends, football teams or whatever - but I wouldn't be surprised if there is an issue here that we should be exploring. Many youngsters don't see much loyalty around them - their families change, their teachers change, their environments change, their expectations get changed for them. Society doesn't seem to expect any of us to stick with anything. I too have wondered out loud recently about shallow relationships - I'm not really qualified to call this one either, and I certainly wouldn't pin it to social media; but I don't want to be ignoring the issue when I've found that it resonated with teachers I've spoken to. And if we look back at a few decades of hyper-consumption, spectacularisation of culture and systematic deconstruction of what is 'public', would we really be surprised to find a thread running through and connecting these trends? It's not right to dump the blame or responsibility for any of these on young people. It would have been helpful if the archbeak had recognised the contribution of his and my generation, and of politicians and the media, to the erosion of loyalty, the cheapening of relationships and the wretched diminution of the public realm. More importantly perhaps, instead of pontificating (is that the right word?) about bullying uses of Bebo he might better have used his ability to get an audience, by calling for a forum in which young people themselves reflect upon the extent to which the communications media they use is related to the fact that some feel excluded, become depressed, and commit suicide. I think it would also help more if we spend some time understanding whether there is some kind of widening divide between those young people who have had the chance to explore their own potential and social relations, and those who haven't. And it may be worth referring...
Clubs and informal play Kids go to organised sessions, kids play out together or hang out, kids stay home. What kind of mix works best? It's not easy trying to understand the social impact of perceived imbalances in a risk-averse, car-oriented, achievement-driven society, but given the power of those forces you'd expect the emphasis to be more on structure and less on informality. Every year the National Children's Bureau publishes research for Playday (which is tomorrow) and the latest looks at 'making time'. Their survey found that nearly half of adults (47%), think children should go to fewer extra-curricular activities. The focus groups with children and young people offer insights into the recognised value of organised activities, and the extent to which they absorb time from informal play. 'It seemed that some of these children perceived clubs as something they ‘ought to do’, regardless of what they felt like doing with their spare time. Informal play alone or with peers was viewed as having less of a purpose than these organised activities, other than for their own enjoyment.' 'A significant number of children in the study lacked any control over which activities they attended and when they went to them, sometimes eliminating the sense of fun. All of the children favoured a mixture of informal play and organised activities, but for many children there seemed to be an imbalance and children’s time for play was often taken over with structured events.' The report also contains observations on the reactions of adults to the informal presence of young people outdoors: 'Meeting together, for example on the streets, near shops or in parks, often led to complaints and harassment from adults, including neighbours and local community members. Amongst all of the older children interviewed, those from Sudan were the only group to discuss their experiences of being reported to the police when they met with their friends on the streets and in the parks. Most of the older children thought this was because of their age rather than their ethnicity, although one child reported encountering racism.' 'If we are going on the street, going to the park, sitting there, a lot of people, they will ring the police for no reason and the police would come up to us and say, “Go away” when we haven’t done anything. That happens all the time.’ Playday research page. Because it’s freedom: children’s views on their time to play. Haki Kapasi and Josie Gleave, London: NCB, 2009.

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