Helping kids to stay safe and secure online with a Scottish writers' residential
When my old colleague Dave Howard asked if I wanted to go to a residential writer’s retreat focused on online safety and security for young people, my first thought was, “How did he get my email address?”. My second thought was “Well, this looks like a great opportunity to learn more about this subject in a dynamic and challenging learning environment”, which is definitely a thing I thought at the time and not something I carefully put together later, like all writers do.
Before you accompany me on a magical metaphorical journey to Scotland (or not, if you already live there) a little bit about me. I have been writing professionally for about ten years, starting out (and continuing) in comedy, but branching out into children’s TV (or “children’s multiplatform content” as it’s now known). I love writing for kids (or “Sub-adult multiplatform content consumers” as they’re now known) as they tend to be a very astute audience: they appreciate honesty, are more attentive to what they’re watching and seem to invest more into their viewing, emotionally speaking, than adults, whose emotions have withered away thanks to years of constant grinding disappointment. Or so I hear.
The 10 writers on the residential
And so it was that I, along with ten or so other writers, descended on Cove Park, an artist’s retreat situated on a bracken-tufted hillside that slants down sharply to the cold deep waters of Loch Long, on Scotland’s West Coast. It’s difficult to describe how immediately freeing this location is to one’s thinking – most writers, if they have any claim to the title at all, will spend their days on a laptop at a desk in a room, intentionally narrowing their focus to the work in hand, (and possibly Facebook), a bit. Cove Park is the opposite of all that, and the sense of space - and possibility - is dizzying. The weather is capricious and changes rapidly, too - within the space of a morning we were treated to drizzle, brilliant sunshine and not one but two short-lived but spectacular rainbows.
The gorgeous surroundings for the residential
Of course, all of this gorgeous scenery would be merely incidental if it wasn’t feeding into something creative. We had been assembled to apply our collective brain-power to helping 9-12 year olds manage and “own” their presence online. This tight focus proved crucial – we were invited not to think so much about the extreme tabloid horror stories of online grooming and radicalisation (though to keep those in mind), but to concentrate instead on the far more prevalent (and therefore more easily-overlooked) issues involving the online lives of young people.
Most young people will experience a degree of stress online, and it was eye-opening to hear how widespread the problem was, and how much even the standard everyday online interactions can become worrisome, addictive or, in some cases, horribly toxic.
One of the better talks was from three girls from the local school, who were able to not only pour scorn on our ideas of how they spent their time online (“Facebook is for your mum!”), but also to correct the lazy assumptions that older people often make about the young. One of the girls was adamant that we understand that the idea older people have of young people constantly glued to their devices is “a stereotype”, and that her digital life was always a secondary consideration to her real life. She will go far.
It was also extremely exciting to hear about the variety of ways the internet enables writers to tell stories – from short videos to branching narratives that encompass all of the major outcomes of a drama, the guest speakers helped us re-imagine our approach to narrative. Particularly helpful were Jack Kibble-White, who works in-house at the BBC in Digital Development, Richard Bond, who produced the hard-hitting Channel 4 drama Cyberbully, and the writer Joe Lidster, who as well as speaking passionately about writing and character development, liked us all so much he stayed on for the evening and helped all the wine mysteriously vanish.
It wasn’t all fun and games though – our visit culminated in a pitch to the assembled BBC luminaries of our idea for a narrative designed to arm children with the necessary skills for a better and less stressful online existence. Pitching is an essential but often-overlooked skill for writers and gave us all a common, and slightly terrifying focus. It will be fascinating to hear all the ideas that everyone came up with.
So, new people, new perspectives, and new opportunities - all things any writer worth their salt should welcome with open arms. I can wholeheartedly recommend the Cove Park experience, and “experience” is very definitely the right word for it. If you get the chance, go – and come back changed and refreshed.
Stay Safe - the BBC's current area for safety online (the writers were developing ideas for an updated version)