Discord! Among learners

As New South Wales emerged out of the 2021 lockdown and children began a staggered return to school, online safety remains a priority issue on the parents’ and carers’ radars.

By Olga Boichak

Some families might follow strict screen time routines while others may have let things slide in the many weeks of supervising learning from home along with work responsibilities and care for younger children or older family members. Regardless of where we find ourselves on this spectrum, we all want our children’s online experiences to be safe without falling for the traditional tropes of the dangers of social media.

As a parent of a 13-year-old, I have been helping my son navigate social media through the pandemic. In the early days of learning from home, he and a few classmates formed a study group on Discord – a voice IP and instant messaging platform. The boys were working on class projects, coaching each other through complex assignments, and playing together at recess.

It’s been amazing to watch the team dynamic develop over the past weeks: they had established ground rules, negotiated schedules & boundaries, split tasks, but most importantly – there was so much joy in it for everyone involved! The children used social media as a space to ask questions, discuss complex ideas, and engage in collaborative learning activities. We saw my son and the other children thrive in a learning environment that afforded these forms of creativity and conviviality, helping each other get through the pandemic.

However, a few weeks into the lockdown the school started cracking down on the students’ use of social media, emphasising potential harms associated with social media platforms such as Discord. Instead, teachers were directing students to online resources approved by the School, such as Google Classroom. Some of the children’s parents stood by the School’s decision, while others still allowed their children to use Discord to call their classmates. My son was lamenting the loss of his community of learners, as he found the communication affordances of Google Classroom limited compared to Discord.

This incident sparked an active discussion among researchers who study children’s use of social media. A few prominent Australian scholars have expressed concern surrounding the ambivalence with which schools engage with digital technology, which happens on a spectrum from immediate adoption and use, to a complete ban. In the next few days, these informal exchanges grew into an international discussion among experts surrounding children’s digital rights and online experiences in educational settings.

So, what can be done to ensure Australian children’s online experiences are safe, positive, and enable meaningful interaction with their peers, especially at a time when opportunities for face-to-face might be limited? Our team of researchers at the University of Sydney has started work on a project to answer this question. The project recognises young people’s right to digital engagement and shared responsibility for online safety. At the same time, we know research on patterns of social media use remains scarce.

To better understand how young Australians are engaging with online platforms, our team will partner with community organisations – Student Edge and Youth Insight – to explore patterns and practices of social media use within Australian households. As part of this project, we will be looking at how rules surrounding social media use are negotiated between young people, their carers, and institutions, what digital skills are crucial to safely navigate the online environments, and the role platform policies and features play in contributing to safe online experiences.

Providing valuable insights into young people’s social media use, this project is a crucial step towards helping young learners share the everyday joy and conviviality while navigating the online environments safely and responsibly.