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Joanna Shields

Baroness Joanna Shields

Prince's Trust Speech

 
 

Good evening your Royal Highness and distinguished guests. 

It is an honor to be here tonight, and to have the opportunity to speak to you.

I would like to start by expressing my deepest admiration and appreciation for the life-changing work that the Prince’s Trust does for young people in the UK.

The stories of dreams realized, lives transformed and potential fulfilled are truly inspirational.

And for all of the lives made good as a result, a heartfelt thanks goes out to Trust and to its generous supporters here tonight.   

Year after year, the Prince’s Trust continues its vitally important work providing opportunities and empowering young people in the UK who need it most.

And it is this sense of empowerment – and access to new opportunities - that is so often celebrated when we talk about the digital revolution.

There is no doubt that digital technology has empowered young people on an unprecedented scale. But whilst the internet has created remarkable opportunities, it is not without its challenges.

Tonight I want to underline the need for us all, in an increasingly virtual world, to be more human and to interact more with young people in the real world, to provide the support and positive influence they need to achieve their true potential. 

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I have the great fortune of working in what I believe is the most positive and uplifting role in government. 

As the Prime Minister’s digital advisor and Chair of Tech City, I have spent the last two and a half years looking at ways to encourage economic growth and help would-be entrepreneurs and business builders to achieve their dreams.

In that brief period of time, the UK has dramatically changed. 

We are now the fastest growing economy in the G7, and the most digitally enabled - with over 10% of our GDP attributed to the internet economy which is more than any other G20 country.

Of the 20 million people in work in the UK, 1.5 million work in the ‘tech’ sector; that’s 7.5% of our workforce today.  The majority of these jobs are skilled and have been created in the last five years.

And tech is empowering equally across the UK.  This is a countrywide phenomenon – 74 percent of tech businesses are based outside London.

There is no doubt that Great Britain is at the forefront of the digital revolution.   The evidence is all around us.

We are becoming a nation of innovators, a nation of groundbreakers and a nation of creators.  Great ideas are flourishing in cities and in tech clusters all across the country.

It used to be that the reality of our birth and our circumstances amounted to our “proverbial lot in life” - but the internet has fundamentally changed this.

Through my role at Tech City I see this everyday – amazingly bright, creative and talented young people from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds surround me. 

Young people, who have grown up online, intrinsically understand the opportunities of living in a connected world and they are taking full advantage of them.

But with all of the positives, there are dangers too. 

The internet can also be an incredibly lonely place.  With so many opportunities existing online, is it any wonder that we are retreating there.

I read something recently that made me think, You are never as happy as you seem on Instagram, never as miserable as you seem on Twitter, and never as employable as you seem on LinkedIn.

We laugh but it’s true. And there is real cause for concern.

With so much social currency given to ‘likes’ and ‘followers’, and with the pressure to appear relevant, popular and cool its no wonder we risk losing more young people, to a solitary existence online. 

The transformational moments in life have always been, and will always be, about people. 

Years from now when we look back on our lives, we won’t remember the YouTube videos we watched or all of those posts on Twitter or Facebook. But we will remember those people who helped and guided us.

I know first-hand how important that human connection can be. As a kid growing up in the 60’s in Central Pennsylvania, in the shadow of industry long faded, if it hadn’t been for the intervention of a great teacher who took an interest in me, recognized my potential and pushed me to study, I would not be standing here speaking to you tonight. 

His intervention was a fork in a road that until then led nowhere. He showed me that I actually had choices to make and he helped me realize that I was the author of my own life story, and that I had to take responsibility over how it was going to be written.

I have never forgotten him.  

Without that spark, that initial catalyst, I would be a very different person today. 

I believe strongly in the potential to change lives by breaking down barriers and giving access to all – equal and fair.

That’s what drew my career to developing internet technologies and products over the past 20 years. 

I believed then, as I still do today, that access to information, and the ability to connect to people anywhere and at any time, would fundamentally change the way we live together and understand each other as human beings.

But I also believe that the propagation of digital in our lives is making us less connected in human terms.

One would think that efficiency the digital world creates would give us more family time and yet parents and children sit together, eyes bright from the light emitted by our devices.   

Young people play online games for days on end, not even breaking to eat or sleep.

We are expected to respond to our emails 24/7.

The risks of a life spent increasingly online, manifests in a number of ways, and we must be alert to the signs.

Our children are living an increasingly digital existence and this means they are often exposed to forces we can’t see and may not even be aware of.

Their behavior is impossible to monitor online but so too are the actions of those who seek to manipulate or abuse them.

Virtual organizations give a sense of purpose and community to those who are lonely and troubled.

Consider the recent tragic example of two brothers in Paris who perpetrated such heinous acts of violence and murder. 

Their story is not dissimilar to that of two brothers in Boston two years earlier behind the Boston Marathon bombings. 

Let me be clear, these were unforgivable acts of terrorism that I condemn unreservedly, however in both cases, it is worth noting that the perpetrators were abandoned at a very young age and left to their own devices, without the help and guidance of parents, mentors or role models. 

Their backgrounds made them different in the areas that they lived, and coupled with a deep sense of wanting to belong, this created a potent cocktail for extremism. 

As we try to make sense of these and other tragic events we must also consider more everyday concerns. 

Ofcom reports that one child in five has seen content online that they found worrying, nasty or offensive, and the proportion of children experiencing this has increased every year since 2011.

The number of counselling sessions ChildLine held about cyber bulling increased by 87% in 2012/13 compared with the previous year.

A study commissioned in 2013 for the annual Safer Internet Day, which surveyed more than 24,000 young people, revealed that a third of children had come across something that worried or upset them online, and that being the victim of internet trolls is now British children’s biggest online fear.

Today, more than ever, children need role models and positive experiences in the real world. 

The great work done by the Trust in helping young people find their way to a productive and happy life has never been more important. 

And it is the generosity of everyone in this room that makes it possible.

With our support, the Trust can continue to change the lives of vulnerable young people.

Let me close by saying that the internet is indeed one of the most powerful creations in human history, and it continues to change our lives for the better.

But let us not forget that human bonds make us truly who we are.

Personal connection and interaction can change lives for the better - not just for the recipient but also for the giver and for everyone whose lives are touched.

It’s the ultimate return on investment.

The Prince’s Trust sets the example for all of us to follow, placing human intervention at the heart of its vital and life changing work.

Your support is ever more appreciated. 

Thank you and good night.