As Electra, Youth IGF Ambassador from Greece summarised, “the meeting was an excellent opportunity to evaluate how our relationship with technology changed during the pandemic and share our personal opinions, but also listen to the experiences of other people from all over the world. Through this particular topic, it was easy to develop a deeper understanding of our relationship with the internet as well as prepare ourselves and make predictions about the changes yet to come”.
The challenges and opportunities of remote learning
The discussion started with a reflection on the quality of remote learning during the pandemic, and in particular the challenges and opportunities it presents to young people.
For Catarina, Better Internet for Kids (BIK) Youth Ambassador from Portugal, the biggest challenge was that the transition to online learning was done almost overnight, without adequate preparations from the teachers, but also from the students themselves who did not all necessarily possess the self-management abilities that this situation requires. As the weeks went by, things improved and became more organised, but Catarina believes that there is still a long way to go for it to be truly efficient.
The remote learning situation could be turned into an opportunity, since we are all learning to adapt to and make the most of the digital format. For her, the biggest opportunity which it has brought her is a stimulation of students’ creativity.
Electra echoed these remarks by agreeing that the biggest challenge was undeniably the fact that the switch to remote learning was done abruptly, with no or very little preparation. Instead, it had to be mostly improvised, which potentially leads to many unforeseen issues. Beyond the customary technical issues, Electra mentioned that to abide by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), no student from her school was allowed to have their camera on during online lessons. There were also cases of cyberbullying via the online platforms used for classes. In terms of opportunities, she found not having to rely on printed school materials more convenient, and also more eco-friendly. In addition, a lot of the daily incidents that can derail an offline class (such as a teacher being late due to traffic, for example) are no longer an issue.
Emotional difficulties encountered by young people during lockdown
When asked whether they – or people close to them – have experienced any online emotional distress during the pandemic, and whether they think Insafe helplines could help people overcome these emotional difficulties during the pandemic, both youth ambassadors agreed that the transition from having an active social life to being in lockdown for months has not left anyone intact.
For Catarina, we need to also take into account the fact that an increased number of online users means an increase in online risks of all sorts; “the more cars there are driving in a street, the higher the probability of a car accident – it’s the same online”. As such, she has noticed an increase in cyberbullying and incidents related to sexting. Another issue for her was the fact that for most of us, the majority of our social lives unfolded on social media platforms, which is a space where users generally share a highly curated and edited version of their lives. For Catarina, having to witness other people’s supposedly “perfect” lives online while in lockdown brought an even greater sense of isolation. Helplines really do make a difference in that regard because they are anonymous and free, there is no fear of judgement, and the person at the other end is a professional – it is therefore a very trusting environment.
Electra agreed that, while the pandemic in itself triggered a lot of stress and anxiety in her and those close to her, this was made worse by the lockdown situation, which meant that her family members had to find ways to support each other while, at the same time, having to remain in the same house as one another for months on end. As she accurately mentioned, online or traditional media did not really help since they relayed a lot of misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and just generally increased everyone’s sense of anxiety. On the contrary, having access to a helpline with specialists who can provide accurate information, help and support has proven extremely important.
It is also key that these helplines are accessible to everyone, since not all citizens enjoy equal access to specialists, or even to the internet (both in terms of connectivity and digital skills). As Electra said, “it’s important to just be able to dial a number on your phone and get all the information and support you need without putting your physical or mental health in jeopardy”.
Reflecting on the positives and negatives of life in lockdown
Finally, the youth ambassadors were asked about the two positive things that, once we go back to more “normal” daily routines, they will retain from this unusual year, and two negative aspects which they would like to leave in 2020 for good.
As her two most negative elements, Catarina mentioned the increased dependence on digital technologies, and the mental and physical health difficulties caused by the pandemic and social distancing. On a more positive note, this unprecedented situation has shown us first-hand the potential of digital technologies to enable people from different continents to engage in meaningful discussions and events. Besides, technological solutions have proven beneficial, not just for a certain fringe of the population, but for people of all ages and backgrounds.
For Electra, a positive aspect of the lockdown is that it sensibly increased the digital literacy rates in the general population, and this will have good consequences on the long run – not only during the crisis. Another positive thing is the fact that the increased time spent indoors has fuelled our creativity and has encouraged us to take up activities or hobbies which we might not usually care much about. When it comes to the negatives of this situation, Electra admitted remote education is no substitute to face-to-face education. She also felt that the increased reliance on social media to communicate with friends and families must have been extremely hard on young people who are too young for social media, or for older people who lack the skills to use it.