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Interview: Bex Lewis, research fellow in social media and online learning

09 May 2014

'We can find good and bad ways to use the technology'

It's a digital age, not the digital age.  We've largely moved away from an industrial age, moving from a focus on manufacturing goods to a focus on information and knowledge. But within that, there'll be different stages: the first computers, laptops, search engines, social networks, each bringing with them new opportunities and risks.

Lots of parents have grown up in a digital age,  and traits ascribed to so-called "digital natives" - collaboration, innovation, transparency, and openness - can be found across the generations. It's more about an attitude to embrace these opportunities. Officially, I'm not a native, because you have to be born after 1980, but someone at Oxford divides people into "digital residents" and "digital visitors". Some people live online, and some just go online because they have to.

I wrote Raising Children in a Digital Age because parents are panicking about the risks they read about in the media.  And a lot of people in churches who work with children don't know what to do when kids turn up at youth club and all they want to do is be on their phones. They also have to deal with safety- and risk-assessments, and so on. So I tried to make all the technical research understandable.

I read an Amazon review of my book:  a 14-year-old, having looked in disgust at what her mum was reading, picked it up and said: "I think she knows what she's talking about." That was quite cool.

The digital revolution has affected all our lives,  whether we're proactively engaged or not. Everytime you shop in the supermarket, take public transport, or searchon Google, data is collected about you. 

The internet has become a backdrop to childhood,  but there are other economic, social, and cultural factors that have more impact. Discussing things on TV was a core activity for many families, and many nostalgically think back to that as a simpler time. Now parents and children can look up information together, or sit with a mobile device in the kitchen while dinner's being cooked.

I'd suggest churches copy the idea of social-media surgeries:  invite people to come and have the kids show the adults what they're doing online, or set up a youth-club blog, or have a 20-minute slot with someone who can show them Facebook or Twitter, or whatever they're interested in. Focus on the positive. Use the building to help people to engage with things. Let's not be scared.

Learn how things work,  even if you have to ask your child for help. Normalise the digital and keep the communication lines open. Adults need to listen and talk to children about their online activities and behaviour, and discuss any issues that arise. This is the most powerful and effective weapon you have in your parenting toolbox. The digital world is part of life, it's here to stay, and there are plenty of opportunities available online; so let's help children make the most of it safely, in among all the other activities that fill their lives.

I'm passionate about people being "whole-life selves",  having integrity between their online and offline lives - mentioning that they go to church in their online life, for example. I've done that with my Facebook page, and ended up with three people asking if they could come to my church because they think it sounds normal and not full of three-headed monsters. But people shouldn't be just pumping out Bible verses. God gave us life to live to the full, and we should be writing about all that we do.

Dan Gardner wrote  that we're "the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our time."

There are risks with digital culture,  as there have always been. We can find good and bad ways to use the technology. We need to have respect for it. 

There are fears that children are spending all their time on devices in their bedrooms.  But if the outside world is seen as increasingly risky, and children don't have much independent access to it any more, it's an obvious way for them to connect with their friends.

There's definitely a role for government in digital literacy,  and we need further funding for research. Our society focuses a lot on individual responsibility, but the whole society has responsibility for children.

There are plenty of horrible things to find on the internet if care isn't taken,  but something that repeatedly distresses me is graceless conversations between Christians. Some of those conversations would be better taken offline - or not had at all. We're all human, but for the rest of the world it's not a good witness.

Before I press the "Send" button,  I'll always ask, "Would I be happy for God, my parents, any children, worst enemy, front page of a newspaper to see this?" before pressing "Post".

Every time we play the piano,  learn a language, or take up a new sport, we're changing the shape of our brains. The internet is undoubtedly having an effect on people's thought-patterns, but that doesn't make it good or bad. 

Teenagers experiment with their identity,  and the internet gives even more opportunities for this. We can all choose how to project ourselves online, but then so we can offline. I'd hope people can do this with integrity.

Relationships online may have a different nature,  but they are as valid and real as offline relationships. Most people relate to each other in a variety of ways: face to face, by phone, via email, via Facebook, via text, and even on paper. Our relationships are not usually split into online and virtual relationships, and offline and "real" relationships. Those that are solely online are no less real than those conducted face to face.

There are some days when I don't go online at all.  Admittedly, that's rare. But on other days it depends: it's part of my job; so I'll be online for a lot longer than many other people, most of the day, and some of the evening. I broke my phone a couple of years ago, and found that I became less healthy, because I was hunched over my laptop for hours, whereas mobile devices can be popped in and out of the pocket - job done in a few seconds.

Futurology is a dangerous art,  but I think privacy and security are increasing concerns, with more private person-to-person conversation on platforms such as WhatsApp rather than public-status updates. On the other hand, smaller, faster, and more wearable devices have longer battery lives. It'll be great not to be worrying about how far I am from a plug socket throughout the day.

I grew up in a Brethren family,  one of five children, the second youngest, with four brothers. My dad's a farmer, and they never retire. We didn't have a TV until I was 17, andI could typicallybe found running around the Sussex countryside, climbing trees, ignoring everyone while I inhaled stories in books, and fought to stop my brothers stealing all my Lego. I now have seven nephews and nieces scattered in every corner of the country.

My biggest claim to fame  is that I wrote the history of "Keep Calm and Carry On" in my Ph.D., before it was famous.

I've done a lot of adventure travel,  looking for opportunities to meet new people and understand new cultures. After I was made redundant from Manchester University, I travelled for eight months through South-East Asia, Australasia, and South America, and then led group tours for Oak Hall around Europe for a summer. I did manage a more relaxing holiday in Marrakesh earlier this year.

Swimming is one of my favourite forms of exercise,  and I love the sound of lapping and running water. 

The most influential people in my life are parents,  teachers, counsellors, colleagues and friends - and Angie Smith from Christ Church, Winchester. She's often said the right thing at the right time to enable me to move forward.

I've been very influenced  by Susan Jeffers's Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway; Cloud and Townsend's Boundaries; Draper's Less is More; Boss's Beyond Chocolate; Williams's Screw Work, Let's Play; and Sher's What do I do when I want to do everything? And can I admit that I love a good Georgette Heyer novel? Fluffy, but historically grounded.

I pray mostly for friends,  family, and sleep. I like to look out for creative ways of praying so I don't fall asleep on my knees, Adrian Plass-style. I love a prayer walk, looking out for God in everything around us. 

I'd choose to be locked in a church with my cousin Hannah,  on whose sofa I often sleep when I'm in London. She's incredibly resourceful and encouraging, and I could put the world to rights with her for hours. We got back in touch via Facebook.

Dr Bex Lewis was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Raising Children in a Digital Age is published by Lion Hudson at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10 - Use code CT654 ).

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