The Malta Independent 16 October 2019, Wednesday

Promote digital literacy in Malta’s schools

Michael Bugeja Sunday, 11 August 2019, 08:43 Last update: about 3 months ago

Earlier this year The Malta Independent ran an insightful article about mental health literacy, warning parents about over-protecting children and hindering their ability to cope with everyday stress. Experts discussed how to distinguish genuine mental disorders from simple life challenges but they did not, however, address a major, stress-inducing teenage activity: social media.  

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Why is this a concern? Two years ago, The Malta Independent reported that Malta had the second highest rate of digital engagement in the European Union, with 96 per cent of those aged between 16 and 24 active on social media. The latest statistics show that some 66.41 per cent of Maltese are active on Facebook alone, with others spending time on Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and other platforms.

Distracted by their own online activities, parents are often oblivious of the abuse that their children experience on social media.

I have been researching these harmful effects for almost two decades in my work as a distinguished professor at Iowa State University of Science and Technology. I have written two books on the subject: Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (2005) and Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (2018), both published by the Oxford University Press.

Last year the Pew Research Centre released a study showing that name-calling and rumour-spreading has increased dramatically among teenagers, with “the proliferation of smartphones and the rise of social media” transforming “where, when and how bullying takes place.”

The study found that 59 per cent of US teenagers suffered abusive online behaviour such as offensive name-calling (42 per cent) and false rumours (32 per cent). Harassment also included someone other than a parent constantly asking “where they are, who they are with or what they are doing” (21per cent). Some 16 per cent have been the target of online physical threats.

Such abuse typically disrupts normal school activities, including loss of sleep, changes in appetite and worrisome interpersonal issues.

A survey by the Royal Society for Public Health asked 14 to 24-year-olds in the United Kingdom how much social media platforms impacted their health and wellbeing. Here are key points of that report:

·                    91 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds use the internet for social networking.

·                    Social media has been described as being more addictive than cigarettes and          alcohol.

·                    The rate of anxiety and depression in young people has risen by 70 per cent in the past 25 years.

·                    Social media use is linked with increased rates of anxiety, depression and poor sleep.

·                    Cyber bullying is a growing problem, with seven out of ten young people saying they have experienced it.

·                    Social media can improve young people’s access to other people’s experiences of health and expert health information.

·                    Those who use social media report being more emotionally supported through their contacts.

I am not condemning technology; used properly, it can enhance the educational experience in significant ways. As the UK study observes, social media provides access to health information and peer support. It can teach how to interact prudently and creatively online, collaborating with others on worthy causes. It can give access to government documents or inform us about critical issues reported credible media; we can use it to keep in touch with relatives who live abroad; we can post messages that inspire others.

Digital literacy advances these attributes. Otherwise, pre-teens and teens learn about the hazards of social media by trial and error.

When children initially register on Facebook, they typically click ‘I agree’ without reading the terms of service. They do not heed – or understand – a privacy controls, allowing strangers of all ages and motivations to contact them. Slowly, they learn about risks when they become the target of hate, harassment, stalking, gossip and/or threat and that is when they start restricting access to personal information. By then, however, the damage has been done.

Parents may not immediately know who or what has afflicted their children, partly because they themselves are dealing with online stress associated with the blurring of home and work. Or they are escaping that stress, playing video games, streaming music and movies, and watching Facebook videos.

We live in the age of distraction.

Incivility also is on the rise. The Malta Independent ran a column on the subject by Alice Taylor, who believes that incivility has become the new social norm in Malta, placing blame on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that provide a semi-anonymous refuge for bullies to vent anger with little or no repercussions.

As Taylor also notes, there is a key difference between face-to-face versus online harassment. When a bully confronts a child in the playground, or a classmate hurls a racial slur in the hallway, the emotional impact is immediate and on display. A harassed child may cry, for instance, or defend him or herself. Others may witness the abuse and report it. That is not the case when someone sends an anonymous text vilifying a child’s appearance or identity. Messages are sent without the conscience being tweaked.

Digital illiteracy has other consequences. Companies like Facebook, Google (Alphabet), Microsoft and Apple are global giants with a singular motive: profit. Platforms are programmed to sell – not to inform, befriend or like. We are data-mined and assigned to affinity groups seeking affirmation over information and fed a daily news stream that reinforces prejudices and political affiliations.

That has an impact on all age groups, to be sure; but the emerging generation – interested in sustainability, climate change, volunteerism, social justice and other worthy pursuits – requires reliable, credible data on which to base their dreams, goals and aspirations. This is why I am calling for digital literacy as a required course in Malta and US schools.

Digital literacy has many components and Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy has listed these fundamentals: know how to use, understand and create content; assess the risks and rewards of a network; ascertain where content is stored and who has access to it; discern the difference between reality and virtual reality and monitor how applications influence the perception of the world and each other.

The Centre states that digital literacy can guard against malware help manage screen time; balance online and offline lives; deal with identity issues ‘relating to digital media, body image and sexuality’ and understand the differences between healthy and unhealthy online relationships.

A recent post by the Computer Society of Malta discusses a common misperception that our children “grow up surrounded by computers and tablets (and) intuitively gain digital literacy skills (ie they already know how to work with text documents and spreadsheets), and therefore they do not need digital education or training.”

Digital natives know how to use social media as consumers. Typically, they do not know about programming or the history of technology, invented by the military to carry out surveillance on adversaries and advanced by businesses to sell products. Those remain its two fundamental features. Social media monitors our likes, dislikes and brands, sells this data to companies, advertises on our sites and feigns to be doing all this free of charge as we provide content on the platform.

Technology is neither moral nor immoral. As my research has shown, it is amoral, changing everything it touches without itself changing much at all. Introduce it into the economy, and the economy is all about the technology. Introduce it into politics, and politics is all about the technology. Introduce it into education, and you get the same result.

Digital literacy provides a defence mechanism as well as a learning advantage.  

Given social media’s influence and omnipresence, especially in Malta, we have an obligation as parents and teachers to understand its nature so that we can mitigate its harmful effects and harness its power for the civic good. In sum, digital literacy – especially when combined with mental health literacy – safeguards Malta’s investment in our youth, preparing them for digital citizenship in an increasingly diverse and challenging global environment. 

 

 

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