Surfing with youth can be educational for all

Published December 1, 1999

THE YOUNG teen chewed a fingernail while typing with one finger. She seemed a bit apprehensive about being online, but game to give it a try. Since she was 13 or so, I was surprised to discover she had never before sent an e-mail. My impression was that most young people spend at least part of their school days on computers. No longer are there typing classes on the manual typewriters which I routinely abused in high school, but rather keyboarding. I encountered this young woman at an event hosted by a professional organization of which I’m a member. Webgrrls, a group of women supporting other women on the Web, invited Big Sisters and their Little Sisters to learn about the Internet. At a series of workshops, we Webgrrls taught the teens and their Big Sisters search techniques, how to secure a free Web-based e-mail address, chat, and safety online. (The Big Sisters organization matches girls who may not have adult females in their lives with women who volunteer their time and provide guidance.) These attentive young women were a pleasure to encounter ? for one, because they chose to be there, so the bored, teenage, so-tell-me-something-I-don’t-know attitude was mercifully absent. But it was watching them interact with their Big Sisters that was the real joy. The Big Sisters, ranging from their mid-20s to late-50s or so, were by no means computer neophytes ? many had worked with computers for years, so the advice went back and forth between the younger and older women. It led me to wonder how often adults sit down at the computer with the young people in their lives. At 19 months, my daughter shows tremendous interest in the computer, though she is still too young, and her hands too little, to navigate most programs on the computer (although Lego has a delightful website called Alfy; designed for pre-literate toddlers, it uses voice descriptions of links rather than text captions ? try I’m looking forward to sitting with her as she feels her way around the Web. I suspect this will happen sooner than I think. If you have children, nephews, nieces, grandchildren or young friends, ask to accompany them on a visit to the Web. Get them to show you some of their favourite sites, where they go to chat, how they do research. If they seem suspicious of your motives, ask them to research a topic you come up with. Maybe suggest a genealogical search;, the Mormons’ genealogy site, has a mind-boggling database of names and they are by no means restricted to families of that religion. Or try to find the answers to trivia questions, like the ones you might find in a board game. Or the next time you are watching the news, ask your young researcher to find some background for an issue or a person who is prominent in current affairs. I can guarantee one or both of you will learn something from the exercise. One of the complaints about the Internet is that is an alienating medium: the more a person interacts with the cyberworld, the less time for connections with people in real life. Perhaps an occasional joint trip on the Web is no remedy for that alienation, but it’s definitely a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Leanne Larmondin is Web manager for the Anglican Church of Canada.


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