Speaking of Students

2 mins reading

Last week I participated in a workshop about digital literacy. A diverse group of university managers, learning designers, academics, and student representatives had some really insightful conversations about how learning needs to be re-framed in these digital times. One problem I recognised in a few presentations that ‘set the scene’ for this event was the encroachment of a very familiar discourse about young people…

Don’t get me wrong: anyone and everyone at this workshop was undoubtedly there because they are deeply passionate about learning experiences, teaching outcomes, and graduate employability. But a few passing comments that reflect pervasive ideas about teenagers and young adults caught my ears and curiosity. One of them inspired the Canva design below…

Beyond these kinds of semi-implicit critiques of ‘smartphone addiction’ and so on, sweeping generalisations have a tendency to creep into everyday conversations about youth both inside and outside the university. Social media tends to be the most popular target of societal reproach, with young people simultaneously (and with some contradiction) positioned as vulnerable due to putting themselves at constant risk and dangerous due to their mischievous behaviour.

‘Do my thumbs look weird in this??’

This infantilisation and demonisation connects with Gabriel Fleur’s persuasive critique of ‘dominant representations of the use of social media [that] characterise the online world as a threat to young people’s well-being because it disturbs the ‘natural’ course of development’ (2014, p. 108). Fleur argues that the harm done by these media discourses significantly outweighs the perceived harm being done by young people themselves.

Perceptions can have significant implications for behaviour, and language reinforces both. What is so often framed as ‘the general rule’ is in my experience so often the exception to the rule. So we need to be careful about how young people are talked about, or they might just stop listening…

What are your thoughts? Have you noticed any dystopian narratives forming about young people lately?



Gabriel, F 2014, ‘Sexting, selfies and self-harm: young people, social media and the performance of self-development’, Media International Australia, no. 151, pp. 104-12.


Feature image: Halloween by Tomás Del Coro (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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