Education & Parenting

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You can’t blame Jamie Oliver for being worried. As the father of Poppy, 11, Daisy, 10, Petal, four, and Buddy, three, he really needs some long-term tech ground rules in his house. So he announced last week that he has banned his eldest daughters from using a mobile phone or any kind of social media. “I found out my two eldest girls had set up Instagram accounts in secret, which I wasn’t happy about and soon put a stop to,” he said. “Poppy is the only girl in her class without a mobile. It may sound harsh, but I do worry about the bullying that can go on with these sites.”

Oliver’s fears are certainly exacerbated by his celebrity status. But they are shared by many parents who, faced with mixed messages about the dangers and benefits of technology, choose simply to ban whatever they can for as long as they can. It doesn’t help that there is often a hypocritical element to all this for modern parents. Oliver announced the birth of both of his younger children to his 3.6 million Twitter followers. If we spend hours on Facebook and Pinterest – in full view of our children – how can we expect them not to go on Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin, Friv or Minecraft as soon as they can wield a mouse?

Sara Bran is from north London and writes on creativity and parenting. She has two daughters, Mia, seven, and Lily, 17. “I don’t think ‘the internet’ is taught well in school,” she said. “It is only mentioned to children in the context of safety and danger. It needs to be broken down into a) health issues – eyesight, sitting still for long periods of time, brain plasticity and creativity; b) intellectual issues about where information comes from and the ability to think independently; and c) social media and ideas about empathy, friendship, bullying, communication and relationships.”

She says that Lily worries a lot for her little sister and feels there has been a huge change in internet use and access in the last few years: “When Lily was seven, there was one central computer in our house that we all used. Now smartphones mean that all of us are in our own private worlds, having private relationships with the internet and social media. At 17, she doesn’t consider herself a digital native, but her younger sister at seven is completely immersed.”

Stay-at-home dad Mark Bryce, who blogs at sonnyandluca.co.uk, is from Manchester. His two boys are three and four, so their internet use is rare and supervised but he already worries: “We tend to stick with CBeebies but when we’ve occasionally used other sites, particularly YouTube, it’s frightening how quickly they can stumble across other material just by clicking on links. Once I took a phone call and within a few minutes they were watching something quite violent – and that was only a couple of clicks away from the cartoon I’d left them viewing.”

The arguments against are well-rehearsed. A recent report for Public Health England concluded that “children who spend more time on computers, watching TV and playing video games tend to experience higher levels of emotional distress, anxiety and depression”.

Then there’s the sedentary effect: more than 70% of young people do not undertake the recommended one hour of physical activity a day. Earlier this year the Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow found a correlation between viewing television for longer than three hours a day (from age five) and “conduct disorder”.

The safety issue is an equal concern. Last month Peter Davies, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceops), said that “half of all child sexual exploitation takes place on social networks. Facebook is a major one, but not the only one”. Last year the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was developing technology to link children’s accounts to those of their parents. At the moment, no under 13s are allowed on the site. The most recent report on Facebook use [Consumer Reports 2011] found that “of the 20 million minors who use Facebook, 7.5 million were younger than 13 and more than five million were younger than 10″.

But as long as you manage and intervene sensibly, technology has so much to offer, argues Heather Ticheli, a London-based home educator and campaigner for Mothers At Home Matter. She has two boys aged four and eight and sees technology as a life-saver: “I wouldn’t want to home educate without screens. Particularly because tech opens up the world to my dyslexic son in a way that books just can’t.”

This generation of parents also realises that it’s likely that the ability to programme, use code, vlog and blog is as essential to the current cohort of children as a degree was in times gone by. The excitement about Raspberry Pi, the £30 credit-card-size mini PC that plugs into a TV and keyboard – “unlocking a new generation of programmers” – is built on this feeling.

“There are so many amazing apps, from phonics and maths to video blogging and stop-motion animation,” Ticheli adds. “We watch documentaries and videos on YouTube. We can use my smartphone to find the answers to the barrage of random questions my children think of while we are stuck in traffic on the bus.”

Parents are fighting back by personally policing their children’s use – the only way you can really know what’s going on. With older children, you need to be up close and personal with their online use, says Tanya Barrow, who writes the award-winning blog Mummy Barrow. She lives in Fleet, Hampshire, with two girls aged 14 and 19 and an 18-year-old son.

“There should be supervision until you know that your children are safe and know what they are doing,’ she said. “Is their profile locked down? Who can see their pictures? What are they sharing? Once you know that your child understands they should not be posting home addresses and so on, then maybe the supervision can be lessened. It is all about talking and understanding. I follow them all on Twitter and am friends with them on Facebook. Yes, I know my comments get deleted. And I am not allowed to ‘like’ statuses on Facebook. But at least they know I know what they are up to.”

Her children all had phones from the age of 10, but “for use in emergencies – not smartphones”. She adds: “I am not too scared about my children being bullied online, we have that conversation a lot and are very open about it and they would talk to me if this happened.

“But we heard of an incident where a friend had added a young lad on Facebook and had been chatting to him for a few months. Just chatting, nothing sinister. But it transpired he was not a young lad and had been biding time and gaining her trust, looking through her photos on Facebook and those of her friends. They were contacted by another worried parent who had called Ceop [the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre] and this person was duly blocked.

“That sort of thing terrifies me. Children are trusting and I don’t want to change that and make them suspicious of everybody, but it is a very fine line.”

Jennifer Howze, co-founder of online community BritMums and mother of a nine-year-old daughter and 14-year-old stepson, says this is perhaps the hottest topic for parents: “Many parents take a stepped approach. Kids first get a phone with very few credits that they can only use to call home in emergencies, then they get one with more credits that they can use to call a close circle of family and friends, then they’re allowed to use their own allowance or earnings to add credit to use it with more people. A big concern is that the phone makes them a target for mugging by other kids.”

She adds: “I’m most concerned about appropriate use of social media. It’s so easy when you’re just learning how to use social media to overshare, say something that you shouldn’t, even take a picture and send it to a boyfriend and girlfriend that gets shared with others.

“They don’t comprehend the repercussions or foresee the issues that might develop. I think every parent also worries that their child might be the one bullying or not being nice to others online. Any way you can have those conversations are good. The earlier, the better.”

Perhaps the worst thing for this generation of busy and over-worked parents, often tech overusers themselves, is that this is one more thing to drive us all apart.

“I worry that screen time will become the norm rather than one of a variety of activities, and also the lack of exercise that will result from it,” Bryce said. “Most of all though I worry that it will become something that comes between them and me as they grow older. I know it’s only natural for kids to seek independence and time away from their parents but I can’t help but feel this inevitable eventuality will only be hastened by the advent of so much time in front of a screen.

“On a positive note, I have utilised their obsession in order to get vegetables into their diet. I now suggest they do something without a screen and then flick carrots into their gaping, unbelieving open mouths.

The parenting website Netmums has polled its members and found that more than 80% of respondents have seen their children sing or repeat sexual lyrics without realising their meaning. A third also said their child had copied the overtly provocative dance moves they had seen pop stars perform. As someone who appreciates the comedic moment in which a child swears unknowingly in front of an assembled audience of elders as unparalleled in its hilarity, I’m tempted to welcome this result. A younger cousin of mine once asked my dad, in front of everyone, if he “liked it hard and rough or smooth and tender”, something he must have got from the media, and I still have to take deep breaths when I think about it a decade later. But I realise that for most people, the results of what the Daily Mail calls a “disturbing survey” means we are now living at the end of times.

That’s not to say that pop stars haven’t become too sexy. They have. They’re so sexy, in fact, that Britney Spears has been reported as longing for the days when, rather than having to troupe around in thigh-high boots, a metallic bikini and fishnets, she could keep it real like she did in that video for Baby One More Time, which was “about the dance” and nothing at all to do with indulging the older male generation’s filthiest schoolgirl fantasies. But at least Britney kept her clothes on. Nowadays you don’t exist unless you’re maniacally twerking while dry-humping yourself with a foam hand left over from the last time they tried to revive Gladiators. Quick! Get them some of those metallic blankets that they give you when the swimming pool has to be evacuated. Or at least a cardigan. This is a fleshy, naked emergency.

While the sexualisation of female pop stars is an ongoing saga which will, much like the women who dressed up on Halloween as a naked person, reach its logical zenith any day now, we must take account of the fact that all this scaremongering wholly buys into the “devil’s music” narrative of pop being damaging to young people, and, in that sense, this generation is no different to those previous. While my disco-dancing ditty of choice, Destiny’s Child’s Bootylicious, may be tame by today’s standards (and if the thought of a 12-year-old belting out “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly” fills you with horror, take comfort in the fact that I thought they were referencing an intolerance to the E-numbers in Rowntree’s), back then the big worry was nu-metal and goth music, a genre which disturbed my school so much that they sent a letter home to school asking that parents not allow their children to wear hooded tops bearing slogans such as “deviant” and “Cradle of Filth”. I’d like to see Miley Cyrus take on Mortiis, I really would.

In other words, music has always been held to be a corrupting influence on young people and a threat to the establishment, and it’s important that we bear that in mind when we’re questioning whether it has now gone too far, as 87% of Netmum parents polled believe it has. And let’s not forget, it’s not just the girls, either. A quarter of parents said that boys thought women wanted men to be “into violence and gangsta culture” – presumably they are just as impressionable as young girls, and are thus taking it upon themselves to rub up against those “bitches and hos” in the playground à la Robin Thicke. They certainly seem to be expecting women to have the kind of bodies that rarely exist in real life.

The solution to the problem is simple: don’t let them watch music videos. I didn’t know these oiled-up sex robots and their pimping boyfriends even existed until that joyous two-year period when my mum got Sky. And if you must let them watch music videos, while I fully accept they have become much, much worse and are practically porn now, perhaps use it as a chance to discuss what’s happening with them in a non-judgmental way? Siobhan Freegard, a founder of Netmums, said in reference to the survey: “It’s toxic to tell young kids that casual sex and violence are something to aspire to,” and she’s not wrong about the violence. But the fact she places it hand in hand with casual sex in terms of toxicity reveals more about our society than Miley and Robin’s frottage ever could.

Walking down West Nanjing Road, one of Shanghai’s busiest shopping streets, you may not immediately look at the shops and buildings around you and feel as though you are in the beating heart of one of China’s key cities. Sitting on the steps outside West Nanjing Road underground station, in the shade of trees lining the European inspired streets, surrounded by the comforting stores of Marks and Spencer, Zara and H&M, you may almost feel at home.

The urban centres of China, and in particular Shanghai, have rapidly developed an all too recognisable ‘Western’ façade. This façade is at first comforting – home comforts, or at least many of them, are readily available. Despite being just as likely to see a local Shanghainese eating a KFC, Starbucks or MacDonald’s as much as you are jiaozi, dumplings, or fèngzhǎo chicken feet, lying underneath this façade is a distinctly strong and traditional cultural Chinese identity. Knowledge and understanding of this underlying current is absolutely necessary for any aspiring young person seeking a successful career or work experience in China.

Doing business in China is not for the faint hearted. An excellent introduction and insight into just how complicated business affairs can get can be read in Tim Clissold’s ‘Mr China’. Failure to understand the complexities of Chinese business culture can place a ‘Western’ business person in a potentially stressful situation.

The old adage of ‘do as the Romans do’ could not be more appropriate in doing business with the Chinese. Recognising, accepting and understanding the key cultural concepts that naturally course through the veins of the Chinese, Mianzi and Guanxi, (“face” and “connections”) are vital as a prelude to success.

It is for this reason that CRCC Asia, which works in Chinese consultancy and recruitment, insists all participants attend an intensive and educational induction day. On their first full day in China, they explore these cultural concepts, and in doing so how – at an introductory level – to successfully navigate the choppy waters of Chinese business etiquette. Learning about Mianzi or ‘face’ might not be paramount in western business circles, but in a Chinese business environment, giving face is serious business.

The concept of Mianzi can catch out the most experienced of expats in China. It is necessary for an expat to adapt to China’s cultural landscape, learning how to read interactions with locals and respond as necessary. At a simple level for example, a newly recruited ‘Western’ intern at a Chinese company could be expected to be introduced to a client to show the company’s international credentials. The western intern should show humility in such a situation, to give face to his/her employer.

Luise Schafer, awarded an OBE in 2012 for her services to British businesses in China, believes that ‘it is vital that those who expect to do business successfully and build relationships in China make an effort to understand something of China’s history and culture’.

“Being gracious and tactful are good attributes in any culture or context, but in China these qualities are highly prized. One’s behaviour can have a huge impact on one’s success. An appreciation and understanding of China’s business etiquette and culture should not be underestimated.”

Mianzi goes hand-in-hand with another key concept, Guanxi, that of building relationships and networks. A lot of business in China is done through who you know and, due to a legal structure which developed differently from western legal frameworks, much negotiation works on trust as much as on contracts. It is not uncommon to find yourself building your networks late into the evening in a bar, swapping business cards, making new contacts through old friendships.

Business deals are traditionally negotiated based on trust, sometimes after a good banquet with flowing Baiju (Chinese liquor). Maintaining and building trust is a necessity, and to keep your levels of Guanxi high you must regularly keep in touch with contacts and return a favour if asked. It’s not unusual for business deals to be renegotiated after the contract has been signed by both parties – that’s when Chinese business culture gets interesting.

It is no surprise therefore that employers are rapidly seeking well rounded students and graduates who have first-hand experience of navigating China’s developing business environment. This rising interest in the Chinese market, coupled with the realisation that the Chinese operate on a different business platform, has led to a surge of young people seeking internship opportunities in China.

If someone had told me that a week and a half into my intensive web development course I would find myself coding a ‘Fizz buzz’ programme at great speed in front of a room of people, whilst singing along to Haim to earn ‘entertainment points’, I would have thought them confused – not only about what Makers Academy would be like, but also how quickly I would learn whilst there. Turns out they would have been very accurate.

I have accidentally ended up in the coding world. The plan was to become an entrepreneur, not a programmer. I did not want to be the person that stayed in, behind the computer all day. I wanted to be the one coming up with the ideas, speaking to people, giving pitches to investors. However, after beginning to explore the dynamic world of tech startups, I came to realise that the image in my head of what it means to be ‘the tech person’ was terribly out of date.

Coding is the new, cool thing to do. It is the currency to have in the entrepreneurial world. Companies such as Makers Academy and Codecademy, startups themselves, are doing an excellent job of creating strong brands in the coding field and making tech fashionable. With reports claiming that there are in the region of 700,000 unfilled jobs in the tech sector, this is the field where opportunities are rife.

The work for Makers Academy started before we even entered the building. Every Maker is sent some preparatory material to work through. Luckily for me, I was not approaching it from the position of a complete novice, being that I have just taken part in the Code First: Girls coding programme, run by Entrepreneur First. Still, I knew that this did not mean that Makers Academy would be easy. From reading other blogs by current cohort members, I was fully aware that coding full-time, five days a week, was in a completely different league to turning up to a short evening class twice a week.

Over the first two weeks, we have already covered a wealth of material. We were first introduced to the Command Line, a means of interacting with your computer and its programs, before looking at ‘git’, a method of storing different versions of your code and being able to jump to different ones depending on your needs. The main language we are learning is called Ruby, where emphasis has been placed on code that is natural to read and easy to write.

Friday is test day. They start as one hour in length, as did last week’s, but we’re told to expect weekend long tests by weeks three or four. You have the chance of earning a unique colourful sticker if you complete it correctly, the point of the test is not for you to compete against each other of for the teachers to have a more formal measure of how you’re progressing. There are no marks. Nothing is noted down.

Rather they are there purely for your benefit. I forgot that momentarily after the first test. I was disappointed in myself that I couldn’t complete it at that others had gotten far further. Then I realised that I was going down exactly the path that the team at Makers had told us not to, and a path which many of us wrongly take in our day-to-day lives. Instead of moping about, I proceeded to work through the test again, proving to myself that I did have the capability of doing it, but that the environment of the test had gotten the better of me. Doing this exercise meant that when our tutor gave us another chance to earn the badge, I was able to take advantage of the opportunity.

Steadily working through the preparatory material before coming here gave me a little flavour of what it would be like spending my days coding. I was struck by the sheer amount of patience that is required if you want to excel in this field. It became important to not only prepare myself technically for the beginning of the course, but mentally as well. In fact, from day one, there has been a push by the Makers Academy team that we focus on the mental and the emotional, as how we feel inside and react to that is a big factor in how successful we will be over the duration of the course. An example of this is the way we deal with failure. You must never ever personalize failure. You are never ever a failure. If you fail at something, it wasn’t you, but rather your approach, and so next time you attempt your task, focus on changing your approach and you’ll get there eventually. We’re given advice such as this multiple times a day, and I’m steadily building up a bank of guidance that’ll be immensely valuable not only for getting through this course, but for the rest of my life.

I don’t know what state I’ll be in in a week from now, six weeks from now, or when I’m facing the final hurdle, but I like to think I’m going to have fun the whole way. This blog will chart my journey to becoming a Maker – the technical, the practical, the emotional, and the social. In the process, I hope to get across why anyone trying to develop technical skills for themselves at whichever stage in life is making a very smart move.

Right, must go now – it’s time for my second test!

It is a well-known fact to students that some coursework markers are tougher than others. Tales of these hawks are carried down from year to year as a warning to those considering taking a module where they might encounter them.

It’s a phenomenon that has taken hold of students, to the extent that some will base their module choices on whether or not the marker will be lenient with them. These fears are not totally unfounded. Many students have slaved over an essay only for it to receive a far lower grade than expected. Many have also sat perplexed, listening while their lecturer explains that the mark they received was a good one, when anybody else would label it dismal.

Alice White, a third-year Biology student at a northern redbrick, says that there have been plenty of instances “where marks seem quite random”.

“Students all get markers allocated and the ones with a certain supervisor get consistently tens of per cent lower than others.”

Cicely, who studies at another reputed university agrees.

“There are definitely a few lecturers that have a certain mark as the highest they’ll ever give anyone,” she says. “It defeats the point of there being a top grade.”

It is perhaps just another fact of student life that has to be accepted, like pot noodles and hungover lectures. But when it’s your degree on the line, is it fair to be subject to the luck of the draw? After all, it is probably one of the only things that is out of your control. When you have pulled out all the stops and produced an essay that any other tutor would applaud, having someone tell you that it worth a class less than you were expecting is more than disheartening.

It can be worse than unlucky if you end up with a harsh marker at every stage of your degree. Not only will your classification take a hit, but it can do serious damage to self-esteem which in turn can affect performance on other assessments.

It seems unfair to have to alter your module choices to avoid these markers, but the reality is that many students do. Final year students in particular are wary, cautious of jeopardising their degree at the last minute. Billy Sexton, a final year Modern History student, even went as far as to change his options.

“I changed a module this semester because I heard that the organiser was a strict marker. I can’t really afford the risk in my last year.”

It is a shame to have to avoid subjects, especially if you have been given the opportunity to tailor your degree to your interests.

Sometimes, it is down to certain stylistic preferences on the part of the tutor. If you can recognise this, one of the ways of combating unforgiving marking is to spend as much time getting to know your tutor as possible. Make use of those office hours – not just around deadlines. Anything you are unsure about, run by them. Be sure to take your essay plans to them as well. Most tutors will be happy to talk them through with you, and this is the perfect way to straighten out any qualms they might have early on.

Whether you climb your way up to their impossibly high standards or flat out avoid them, it is not impossible to work around tough markers. However, students are forced to make that decision; worrying about conforming to various lecturers preferences, which leaves little to be desired on deadline day, or abandon the chance to study something that is truly appealing to them.