An interview with Elise Manon Smith- our specialist consultant facilitator, youth and professionals.

The online space has spectacularly shifted this pandemic year for adults and young people as we work, play and stay in touch with loved ones in this virtual world during a bizarre year. But how can we as educators, organisations and parents protect young people, enable critical questioning and retain the element of curiosity for them when we too are navigating these sudden shifts and paradigms ourselves?

From delivering online and face to face workshops around fake news, extremism, violence and gangs to students and teachers in primary and secondary schools, we thought we’d find out the particular issues that are emerging in Covid times in our conversation with Elise.

Question – Elise, what are the themes you’re noticing as a trainer to young people and adults?

Definitely there is more emphasis on what young people are seeing on-line. This year we have all spent more time online, and our social media platforms have seen more of us than ever. A lot of stories are created and spread across these social media platforms. I have to quiz young people and ask them, where are you getting your information from, how do you know it’s true?  One young person recently was convinced that YouTube was the Go-To place to get their news from, that it was always reliable. I always use the example that if I was an influencer with millions of followers I could easily make up false news, post about it and a large percentage of my followers would simply believe it and it could spread from there.

One big theme is on-line gaming.  In our training, we are able to (responsibly) show videos to secondary students showing how extremist groups are using people’s interests in gaming to target and recruit people, also making links to normalise or glamourise real life violence. I like to throw out there that ‘if you play these games it makes you a violent person.  I don’t agree with this point but it really makes the young people react and also gets them thinking about how groups such as extremist groups and gangs are attempting to normalise violence. Primary school students too are using gaming apps and sites, they all tend to have on-line chat functions and are open to bullying and racism.  It is a constant topic brought up and they understand that not everyone they’re talking to online has their best intentions in mind – however lots still openly chat to people they don’t know online.  The kids say ‘but you can block it’ – but they still don’t know whether it is an adult they are talking to.

Question – What still surprises you as an experienced trainer?

Young people’s real knowledge of violent crime, from the experience of where they live. still shocks me.  I’ve been to schools where there has been a fatal stabbing in the same road as the school.  Some kids are not even shocked any more.  They say ‘my brother used to be in a gang, my Dad used to be in a gang.  Even teachers are not so shocked any more, it’s becoming more prevalent.   When young people have disclosed things in the sessions, I have to raise concerns with the school.  [How does the school respond, what do they do?}  The school doesn’t ignore it and they address it, and in our sessions, we create a place where they can discuss these topics openly and we can raise awareness of how people get involved with that lifestyle and how they can practically keep themselves safe in a way that’s not patronising and instructive, but respectful to that young person.

Question- What do you learn from the questions young people raise?

I’m always shocked by the level of knowledge quite young children in primary school have. 10-year olds will ask about things like the dark web, whether it’s criminals that use it to talk to each other.  They may just be repeating what they’ve heard, but there’s also a lot they read or see online too.  I have to think instantly about how to respond to questions and examples.   One primary child told of how his cousin had joined a church which had got into trouble – it was a real example of an extremist group.  But I could link it to the discussion of extremism and grooming.   After doing the session on fake news, and showing the video of how Nigel was enticed into a gang by what he was told, and being anti IRA, one child put his hand up and said, “my uncle was in the IRA.  He went to prison”.   Again, I can link it back to extremism.  But you always have to make decisions about how far to take it.

Question-Has Covid and lockdown made a difference to all this?

At school, they haven’t had many visitors and I notice that students have been a bit more engaged in discussion and questions I ask. ConnectFutures also ensure to include up to date visuals such as conspiracy theories, manipulative content co-opted by extremist groups targeting young people and localised images in their sessions which always gets a good reaction.

Fake news is so relevant now, they are really engaged with this too.  They are shocked at the manipulative content of platforms like TikTok and YouTube. At one level we’re all vulnerable and it is easy to react to things we see online but some people are more impressionable than others.  For example, there are so many COVID conspiracy theories and young people are exposed to so much content on social media about this that can be potentially harmful if it has them go against guidelines or restrictions.

Question- Finally, looking at the on-line and contextual world, what then would be your top 3 takeaways for those working with young people?

  1. Don’t be afraid to do the research – look at the apps young people are using.  Don’t shy away from this. Differentiate between the age categories too. Know your Roblox from Telegram.  If you hear something mentioned in class and you are unsure what it is, conduct your research.  Find tools to understand the local context – in our training, we give tools around mapping and the geography around the school, for example.
  2. Have those challenging conversations, if young people say things that cause you concern, it could be in their language for example or that they make an extreme statement. Speak to them, challenge them and let them know you’re there to listen.
  3. Insist on critical thinking. Young people might not do it naturally.  You can support them to feel empowered – ‘you don’t have to believe the first thing you see, get yourself better information, especially on the content of what you read online