Génération Numérique: 20 years of teaching the internet to kids
It’s a warm day in early summer. The 350 children aged 11-15 who attend this recently renovated middle school in rural Normandy are finishing exams and looking forward to the long summer holidays.
Before the year ends though, half of them will attend workshops conducted by Génération Numérique, a French association with 20 years’ experience in educating children about the internet: how it works, what it can be used for, the myths and realities of social media, online bullying, its consequences and how to combat it.
Today’s agenda sees animator Sami Charfi conduct three sessions for around 75 12-year-olds that will examine data collection, storage and privacy, internet usages, the dangers of extended screen time, gaming addiction, and bullying.
It’s a lot of ground to cover, but with 12 years of running workshops for Génération Numérique under his belt, Charfi is more than up to the task. As the day evolves, it becomes apparent he is an expert in the digital field, with passion in equal measures for his subject and the well-being of the students he’s educating.
A skilful orator, Charfi has the kids laughing from the get-go. He keeps their attention with good-natured humour, personal anecdotes, empathy, and an obvious mastery of the facts. He delivers his message with firmness and respect.
Ubiquitous use of smartphones and social media by children
Questions to the class about who owns a smartphone (all of them), and which social networks they’re active on are revealing of the world in which we live. Half of the group have an electronic device in their bedrooms, all of them are using Snapchat, half are using TikTok, and one child affirms having an account on just about all the social networks: Twitter, Discord, Telegram, Twitch, YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook.
Charfi puts his hand up when he too has an account, and has a quick explainer for most platforms:
Facebook: “Hello to the oldies!”
Telegram: “It was created by Russian hackers.”
Twitter: “Being polite is banned on Twitter. Once I tweeted ‘Bonjour’ and was hit with a wave of abuse.”
Clearly at ease, a girl with a long dark ponytail in a red sundress puts her hand up.
“Sir, I used to have a smartphone but don’t anymore.”
“What happened, were you punished?”
“Yes, I did something stupid,” the girl responds, her face getting redder by the second.
“When do you get it back?”
“When I’m 20,” she half laughs.
“Woah! It must have been an XXL stupidity!” responds Charfi to general laughter.
The interest of the class spikes. They’re whispering behind their hands and asking what happened? Why did you lose your phone? Charfi is quick to shut down the chatter.
“It doesn’t matter what she did, it’s none of our business. She’s not obliged to tell us anything she doesn’t want to,” he chides.
Covid lockdowns continue to take their toll
Prior to the workshops, Charfi meets with the school counsellor, year-level coordinator, and principal to discuss their expectations for the sessions. A kindly young woman of about 30, school counsellor Mme Dupont* says that although they covered issues of bullying extensively earlier in the year, a reminder “certainly wouldn’t hurt”.
Dupont confides that the first class of the day has proven to be a particularly difficult cohort of children. Covid lockdowns and disruptions curtailed their primary schooling, which heavily impacted their level of socialisation. They arrived at middle school with a distinct lack of empathy compared to other groups, Dupont says, and are quick to mock each other.
“During a discussion of life at school, I was shocked to find at least 10 kids in the group [of 27] admitted to not daring to answer questions in class because they are too afraid of being mocked by their classmates,” Dupont says, clearly saddened by the knowledge.
Indeed, observing the workshop, the class is clearly divided between those on one side who participate actively in the discussion, and those on the other who remain silent. The girl who had her phone confiscated is a regular contributor, confiding also that she once booked 42 hours screen time on her smartphone in a week.
Stamping out the scourge of high-school bullying
The workshops taking place this week are particularly timely; just a week earlier, France had been rocked by the tragic case of 13-year-old Lindsay who took her own life following a sustained campaign of online bullying.
Bringing the conversation around to bullying and harassment, Charfi notes that although everyone knows the problem exists, it does not seem to be getting any better, with 700,000 to 1m cases of online bullying recorded in France each year. Paradoxically, 76% of those doing the bullying have been bullied in the past.
Charfi launches into a discussion of fact versus interpretation, using examples from his own online experiences combined with interactive exercises during which he asks the children to state what facts they have learned from a selected phrase.
He explains how the brain works to demand information which it does not have, bringing them to an understanding of what is a known fact, and what is an assumption which could be harmful if repeated and shared.
“Things get repeated that are interpreted, and your defence for repeating them is ‘that’s what someone told me’, or ‘well, she deserves it’, and that’s how the phenomenon of bullying continues,” says Charfi.
“There’s another reason too, it happens because you need to externalise your anger. That’s why bullying is very, very often linked to middle school, a lot more than other age groups. By high school, you’ve acquired what we call reason, but at your age, we function principally on emotions.”
Charfi’s discussion of what bullying is and why it propagates so easily — especially online — is reinforced by a short video in which actors play out some of the worst internet hate speech in real life settings. The violently racist and homophobic words contrast sharply with the actions of real people who intervene of their own accord to shut down the harassers.
When the video ends, there is stunned silence. The children are visibly upset, mouths downturned as they look for the reactions of their classmates.
“You cannot be scared of a reaction that you can’t see, so when nobody calls it out, people just continue with the harassment,” comments Charfi. “So, it’s simple, don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in real life.”
The discussion is rounded out by showing where and how online bullying can be reported to authorities, and where help is available for those who need it.
Dismantling the myths of influencers and content creators
Génération Numérique’s modus operandi is a resolute lack of judgement. Charfi is determined not to moralise that everything digital is bad, but to explain and educate how it can be best used and controlled. Using two TikTok videos, he demonstrates that the platform can be both educative and entertaining, and how videos can be staged to seem natural while hiding publicity messages.
The children dissolve into fits of laughter at the second video, which depicts a shirtless man deterring ticket inspectors on a train by contorting his body so he appears to be a kind of inflatable robot. Charfi goes on to explain the video is an undeclared ad for French train company SNCF, pointing out the tell-tales in the video that show it up as fake.
To his left, a small boy pipes up:
“That’s what I want to do, be on social media.”
It’s an opening Charfi has been waiting for. The guy in the video, he points out, is a professional dancer. He has trained for years to be able to contort his body in such a way. The video would have taken several hours and several takes to make. It wasn’t made and posted in 20 seconds flat.
“This involves screenwriting. It’s a real job. You need to be able to write, to think, to be able to act it out exactly the same each time. It’s not just do whatever you like, post it, and voilà, you’re going to earn millions. This man has created a character and has another, real life on the side,” says Charfi.
“The people like [French reality TV influencer] Nabilla are different. They’ve got beautiful clothes and live in palaces, but they don’t have any other life. They are obliged to share everything about their lives permanently, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to make sure they stay popular. If you live life like that, believe me, at one point, psychologically you’re going to lose it.”
Charfi goes on to point out that professional sportspeople, artists, actors, or dancers like the one in the video usually complete a secondary form of educational training, so they have something to fall back on.
“I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m saying know what you’re getting into and have a back-up in case it doesn’t work out,” he says, receiving a big smile and double thumbs up from the teacher at the back of the room.
At 5pm, the long hot day is over. Kids and teachers bolt at the sound of the bell while Charfi, visibly drained, packs up his equipment and plans his getaway. He has an hour’s break for a drive and some air before being back at school for a parents’ session.
“Normally, only a few parents turn up and those who do already know what you’re going to say. If we get half-a-dozen parents who come, that’s a good turnout,’” he smiles.
* Names of the school and its members have been changed or removed to protect their privacy.
* In France, official complaints about online harassment and illegal content can be made here: https://www.internet-signalement.gouv.fr/PharosS1/
* In France, to signal illegal content anonymously, or to seek legal or emotional advice if you are a victim of online harassment, visit Point de Contact
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