Techmums’ (#techmums) head of operations, Isabel Chapman, explains the importance of getting parents involved in digital inclusion programmes and how Techmums are helping parents to get online and learn more about the opportunities the internet offers, particularly around their childrens’ futures.
When the new school year began in September last year, many parents posted filtered photos of their little ones going off to school for their first day. The excitement, anticipation and nervousness from everyone involved was obvious. However, with most people focusing on new schools, new teachers and brand new uniforms, I spoke to one friend whose child kept persistently asking, “why exactly do I have to go to school?”
My friend admitted being rather flummoxed by this unexpected cross-examination. On further enquiry, she explained to me that, rather than opening up a complicated can of worms while running late to the school gate, it seemed the quickest answer was the standard response of, “to prepare you for your future career, I guess.”
Jobs that don’t yet exist
On the surface, a seemingly swift and acceptable response to satisfy the child; however, research suggests that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. Therefore, the idea of simply sending your children off to start school to complete their primary and secondary education and to be prepared for the working world might not be that straightforward after all.
As the working world adapts to new technologies, many of us have experienced increasingly flexible working, video conferencing, CRM systems and multiple inboxes on our phones. However, with such advances in technology, it makes it difficult to predict what the future working world will actually look like in 10 or 20 years’ time. Despite there being many hypothetical conversations around driverless cars and some of us apparently relocating to nearby planets, one thing that is inevitable is that the future is going to be increasingly digitally-enabled. The workplace will continue to embrace this shift, but to what extent are we embracing these developments in our education system, and what about in our homes?
2.7 million disconnected households…
It can be easy to forget in today’s society, where people supposedly check their phones every 12 minutes and where adults now spend more than 40 hours a week online, that not all of us are on Instagram and delving deep into our inboxes until the early hours. Before we start celebrating the UK’s connectivity, it’s important to consider that 10 per cent of UK households don’t have internet access, this equates to 2.7 million disconnected households. And of those without internet access, 64 per cent feel that they don’t need the internet because they think that it’s not useful or interesting, and a further 20 per cent lack internet skills; those figures mean that there are currently 1.7 million households where the internet is seen as irrelevant and nearly half a million households needing additional skills to get them confident enough to get online.
For a child on a practical level, if internet access isn’t available at home, it poses a number of key disadvantages, from the difficulty of completing everyday tasks such as homework, disconnection from their peers or the stigma of their family not being able to afford the internet, through to the limiting of future prospects, given that almost every job or career now requires at least a basic knowledge of IT. Living in a household that is sceptical, wary or even negative about advances in technology further restricts development, social mobility and potential career aspirations. Plainly speaking, without increased access and a transformation in perceptions, those families will get left behind; not in the future, but unfortunately now, where the digitally-connected world ends at your very own front door.
Mind the digital skills gap
The reality of families who don’t embrace technology or those who have limited access to it results in an alarming knowledge and skills gap that will continue to widen between parents and their children as they grow up. Children with limited digital access often find ways to use technology, be it a school iPad or a friend’s phone. Despite inconsistent access at home, children are often aware of digital advances and have a sound understanding of how to use it when it is available to them. Children and young people who have inconsistent access to technology may use it with a limited understanding of its dangers, as well as restricted exposure resulting in them using technology in a limited capacity, potentially not really understanding it’s full value or the important role it is likely play in their future careers. When this does happen, it decreases and undermines parents’ ability to protect and guide their children through the digital world.
Parents often fall into two categories in relation to technology and their children. Some parents restrict all access to social media and screens. They are wary and apprehensive, almost scared of digital technologies, often only allowing their children to use the internet for homework. Some parents with adolescent children create social media accounts and follow their children on Snapchat and Instagram. In these cases, apart from it being social suicide to have your parents following your every move, their children usually always have other accounts or simply go to friends’ houses and use their devices and ‘real’ accounts, so remain undetected. These parents, although very well-intentioned, often take away all forms of trust regarding their children and technology, and on a practical level, it is a full-time job policing, especially if you have more than one child.
The other extreme approach is where parents attempt to remain completely unaware of what their children are accessing. They remain in the dark about which platforms and technologies their children use and are reluctant to learn anything more about digital safety than is absolutely necessary. This approach is also not ideal and if something does need addressing, or children need support with technology, the parents often feel far too out of their depth to even begin. Eventually, this might result in the child ceasing to ask for parental support and look for answers elsewhere, including notoriously unreliable online sources.
Some parents have tried to strike a more realistic balance and understand that this new integration of technology into our family lives is a learning curve. The knowledge gap between parents and children might be the largest it has ever been due to vast and fast developments in technology over the past decade. Complex issues require ongoing, open discussions with our children, and it’s not about parents stating that they always have the right answers. It’s important that children and young people know who they can speak to when the inevitable online issues do happen, or equally as important for them to be able to verbalise how they are coping with constant connectivity in their daily lives. There is great value in children and parents figuring things out together, where possible treating children as the experts that they often are, especially as adolescents.
Opportunities around technology are becoming increasingly visible, with technology apprenticeships being offered by most large companies and also by many housing providers. In some cases, they are exciting, practical opportunities with experience and desirable career prospects. However, on the whole, parental influence still holds the vast amount of weight on young people’s further education choices and early career decisions.
Finding the missing link
The missing link between raising awareness of the opportunities available, changing attitudes and seeing more young people actively embrace careers in the technology sector is to include parents in a more meaningful way. Parents are often the missing piece of the puzzle. They might get excluded from conversations or included only as an afterthought and largely remain uninvited to impressive school talks with role models from emerging industries and leading figures in technology. If we want to support more young people to take advantage of everything technology has to offer and make technology roles accessible to everyone, we must educate and include parents too. Without the genuine engagement of parents, they can at best remain fearful about future possibilities, or at worst become blockers due to a lack of understanding.
Organisations such as Techmums (#techmums) are attempting to support more parents to be a part of the conversation around children, technology and future opportunities. Techmums, a social enterprise founded by technology evangelist Dr Sue Black, supports mothers to upskill in all things digital, from understanding email and the office in the cloud, right through to how to keep themselves and their families safe online, how to manage their finances digitally, as well providing mums with an introduction to web design, app design and coding.
Techmums has partnered with Hyde Housing to offer a 10-week ‘digital skills club’ for mums in Hyde’s community in Stockwell, London. Working with housing providers makes sense for organisations such as Techmums to reach parents who are harder to reach and in need of flexible employment.
Some of the young mothers I met through Techmums talked about struggling to complete homework tasks with their children because it’s presumed every household now has multiple iPads floating around and endless super-fast broadband, when in reality their only access to the internet is through the limited data on their phones or, if they are lucky, at the local library. For some families, heating their homes or putting food on the table is a more crucial component of their weekly budgeting than an expensive monthly broadband bill. If the primary-school children of today are going to go into tomorrow’s unknown careers, we must empower parents to embrace continuing advances in technology, rather than be hesitant, negative or scared. Ultimately, these attitudes detrimentally affect their own children’s aspirations and life chances. Let’s include parents in these exciting conversations; the ones that blow minds, ignite interests and result in us all feeling fired up rather than fearful about the future.
Local digital-inclusion schemes
We must seriously support families who can’t get online with the skills and resources to do so. Support for families struggling to bring technology into their homes is inconsistent and, unsurprisingly, a postcode lottery. One amazing example is through an iPad-lending scheme led by Leeds Council in partnership with 02. Leeds Council have invested in 150 iPads with 5Gb data allowances available for people to borrow for up to a month at a time.
Another option could be to offer reduced broadband rates for single-parent families or in hollowed-out neighbourhoods where the richest are living alongside the poorest in the same communities, there could be a sponsored router scheme. Richer families could pay their internet provider to support a family living nearby to have similar broadband access as themselves or contribute towards a local, communal internet-access fund.
Not everyone needs a digital detox…
The next time you find yourself at the centre of the inevitably competitive discussion about the relentless ‘always on’ internet culture, make sure you mention that not everyone is in need of an urgent ‘digital detox’; unfortunately, in many cases, it’s quite the opposite.
The ‘digital divide’ is real and unless we change our approach, it will continue to reduce social integration and future generations’ aspirations. Let’s not leave behind the 2.7 million households and estimated 750,000 children who still have only limited access to the internet in the UK today.
Parents just want the best for their children and where possible want to be an active a part of their lives and futures. Let’s include parents to ensure they positively influence their children and allow everyone to actively understand and embrace the evolving digital world.
And although there are entire sectors yet to be created, fear not, you can tell your children that they still must keep going to school, even if it’s just to use the computers. On second thoughts, maybe just until the neighbours agree to sponsor a wi-fi router…
Isabel Chapman is head of operations at Techmums (#techmums).