What do teens and seniors have in common?

olderwriters“We live in a changing world. Multi-modal communication is a fact of 21st Century life. And in the context of the developed world, that means no one need be socially isolated— irrespective of local or global geography. It means the condition of physical or mental health, or socio-economics, is less of a determining factor to engagement and acceptance, than it once may have been. As long as one can write well. “

This paragraph was in the middle of a post I wrote a few months back about the importance of writing well. The post focussed on teaching kids to write well as a process of empowering them to participate fully in a changing society. The core theme of the post was about people finding themselves at a great disadvantage by not being able to communicate effectively in an electronic environment.

Recently, I was chatting to a group of older people about my teen Writers’ Groups. Sometimes I can get carried away by my passion for teaching writing, and this particular occasion was no exception. But at a lull in the conversation, one of the conversation participants told me that he really wanted to learn to write well. I was surprised.

The man told me he was about to retire from working life and wanted nothing more than to write his father’s life story. I thought that was a fabulous project for him to embark on and told him so. He then explained the barriers he faced. He was mid sixties and had a background in science so had never really learned to write in the style necessary to write memoir or narrative. He said that for the last 45 years of his life, he had not written much at all.

The conversation turned to other barriers facing older people as they left the workforce and a big one that seemed fairly common among the group was the use of technology. They could mostly use email, but as one woman said, hardly anyone emails anymore; instead “...they SMS (short message service) and DM (direct message), IM (instant message), PM (private message) and AM (???). I asked what AM was, and amid a lot of laughter, was told it didn’t matter because none of them knew what any of the Ms meant. And that was the problem— they couldn’t communicate with their families anymore because people rarely used the phone to talk, no one could read their handwriting because it wasn’t “a standard font”, and email was passé.

I’ve been going over and over this conversation in my head now for weeks. And I realised that I’d been so focussed on providing services to develop teen writing so that young adults could become effective social participants that it had never occurred to me older people were equally as vulnerable. I had written about barriers to technology for people before, in the context of literacy and democracy, but had not necessarily considered the plight of older people specifically.

But it’s true. The speed at which technology is not only developing, but is integrated into everything we do is mind-boggling. Even for an early adopter, like me. Just when you have a handle on a particular piece of technology, it’s obsolete and the next edition is out. But what has all this got to do with writing?

Back to my group of older Australians, “writing has changed so much since we were at school,” they said. “That even my basic written expression alienates me from my grandkids.”

It’s true, I suppose. Technology has changed the way we write in so many ways, leaving whole demographics confused and disoriented. So what am I doing about it? I am broadening my focus and as requested by my group of older friends, I am starting a Writers Group for Seniors.

Interested? Drop me a line!

Publishers, cybersafety and the real world

whoareyouA few years ago when I began submitting the novel FAKE PROFILE to publishers, one of them said to me: “Is this really an issue for kids that young? The story has to be believable.” For those of you who don’t know, FAKE PROFILE is about a group of 13-and-14-year-old friends. A few of them create a fake Facebook profile for one of the others as a joke. It starts off being funny but when a post goes viral, it ends up having devastating consequences that none of them could have predicted.

When that particular publisher asked the question, I was a bit annoyed. After all, I was the one who worked with teenagers of the age for which I was writing. I was the one who conducted Social Media Safety seminars for students, parents and teachers. And I was the one who had quizzed students about their social media use before, during and after writing the book.

Last year I asked a class of Year 7 students at the high school where I’d been teaching writing, which of them had a Facebook profile, 29 out of 29 students indicated in the affirmative. When I asked whether anyone had created one in a name other than their own, 11 out of 29 students indicated they had. That’s almost a third!

My ‘research’ on teenage use of Social Media is informal and anecdotal, it always has been. But in this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald, there is a story informed by research conducted by Newspoll on behalf of The Australian Media and Communication Authority about the demographic most likely to be cyberbullied. There is no surprise (at least not to me) that the “most likely candidate for cyber-bullying is a 14 year old girl who checks her Facebook account daily”.

The report states that “Girls aged 12 to 17 who used Facebook daily were most likely to be cyber-bullied. Within that cohort, 38 per cent had ended a friendship over their bad experience, 32 per cent had a face-to-face confrontation and 41 per cent had felt "nervous about going to school the next day".

It’s interesting that the very issue about which FAKE PROFILE was written two years ago should be highlighted in the media today. Actually, it’s not as interesting as it is concerning. Use of social media and cyberbullying have been issues for years; it’s only now that it is getting the publicity it needs for people to become aware and informed about it.

Parents and teachers are in the best position to educate and support teens on their use of social media, but first they need to educate and inform themselves about this very real, and very concerning issue. Perhaps that’s why FAKE PROFILE is read in equal numbers by adults and teens, and why teachers kept asking for a teaching program (which will be ready very soon) to accompany the book for use in the classroom.

And THAT publisher? Well, as FAKE PROFILE continues to gain traction in schools, he may well be wishing he’d been a little better informed himself.

FAKE PROFILE is available here. A Stage 4 English Teaching Program based on the new National Curriculum due to be implemented in schools across Australia can be pre-ordered here.