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Blocking students' use of Web 2.0 sites - blogs, Facebook, YouTube, and chat - at school could exclude them from valuable educational opportunities as well as heighten social exclusion, particularly in remote and Indigenous communities.
Queensland University of Technology media and communication PhD candidate Tanya Notley, from the Creative Industries Faculty, said social networking sites such as MySpace, Bebo and Facebook were blocked on all Queensland state school computers, denying many students without home internet use of these sites to learn and participate in an increasingly networked society.
Ms Notley investigated the impact of the digital divide and its relationship to social inclusion in Queensland and found 28 local areas in the state had fewer than 20 per cent of households with internet access.
"All 28 local areas were Indigenous communities and most were located in the far north," Ms Notley said.
"The digital divide refers to inequalities in people's access to computers and the internet and is closely related to 'digital inclusion' whereby people can improve their lives and life chances by using technology to interact with the world.
"For this study I analysed how 75 young people in urban, rural and remote regions used internet-based networking environments in their everyday life to participate in society.
"Firstly, I found that participating in online networks provided the research participants with a way to develop and sustain their personal social networks.
"This is important because research tells us that a strong, supportive and extensive social network improves people's life opportunities."
Ms Notley said students at one urban school that allowed access to online networks at school used them in diverse and creative ways to gain social and learning benefits.
"One student collected computer parts from the street hard rubbish collection and built two computers and networked them using only online tutorials and forums.
"He also created a MSN Spaces blog when he noticed his favourite place to enjoy the bush was being degraded because of drought and he received positive feedback from other internet users including from a teenager in China."
Other students had used online networks to work through anger and depression when separated from friends because of family relocation or they used "rants" on MySpace to develop arguments and ideas which later formed the basis of their school assignments.
"Online networks provided these students with ways to participate in society that were social, cultural, civic, economic and educative," Ms Notley said.
"But for young people to develop the internet capabilities to participate in society in ways that have meaning for them they need to have a wide experience of online networks before they can make informed decisions on how they can best use them.
"Policies that aim to close the digital divide are failing young people who live in areas of Queensland where home internet access is very low," Ms Notley said.
"Policies would be far more effective if they were focused on teaching young people about the risks and benefits of different online networks rather than on just banning and ignoring them."
Media contact: Niki Widdowson, QUT media officer, 07 3138 1841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
** High res pic pic of Ms Notley available for media use.