More time online, less education, a problem for SA’s teens
Safer Internet Day is being celebrated in South Africa on Tuesday, February 9th, with the theme of bringing various stakeholders ‘Together For A Better Internet’. Humanity is at its most advanced point of access to smart technology, data, games, apps and social media platforms, which has accelerated many industries – like eCommerce, e-learning and streaming entertainment – by three to five years. But with so much additional time in lockdown, and out of schools, due to the pandemic, there remains a gaping hole in digital education to guide and protect kids online, some of whom are using devices for many more hours than they were a year ago.
South Africa’s leading Digital Life Skills expert, Dean McCoubrey from MySociaLife, questions whether education is doing all that it can.
He says, “Together for a better internet can be achievable if government and regulators work together with platforms to educate and protect children. But this is not even happening in most developed countries. The power of social platforms, and the failure to educate in digital citizenship, has placed the responsibility solely in the lap of parents, teachers, students, counsellors and mental health professionals to understand the extent of what children have to cope with and manage online, exacerbated by COVID-19. “Technology’s growth will not relent. Kids are using the internet more than ever before, so we will need to understand what they’re engaging with to support them.”
According to the App Annie Sate of Mobile Report 2021, casual games dominate downloads with the popularity of easy-to-use names like Among Us, ROBLOX and My Talking Tom Friends. Mobile gaming is on track to surpass $120 billion in consumer spending in 2021 — capturing 1.5x of the market compared to all other gaming platforms combined. Social media app, TikTok, with over 1.6bn downloads and 800m monthly active users sees over 1 billion video views per day.
McCoubrey believes in the power of technology and the positive benefits it can bring to our children’s digital potential, but he remarks that this can largely only be achieved when we provide them with an honest, relatable and balanced view of the prizes and pitfalls which exist in their life online. “We can show children more doors of opportunity after showing them how to become safer and smarter kids online. It leads to learning new skills, exploration and then excellence. It’s an opportunity for Africa to embrace digital literacy early.”
He adds, “For adults right now there is an overwhelming workload, as well as financial and health pressure at this time, but we will have to take ownership of the fact that we expect learners to navigate these complex devices and social media platforms, without providing them with a guide to navigate the content – and their emotional responses. It’s IQ meets EQ in a digital realm: DQ, or digital quotient.”
MySociaLife is an online life skills and digital citizenship program which operates in South African schools and provides an 8-module digital curriculum for Grade 4 to 11 students. The subjects covered include critical thinking, cyberbullying, digital identity, privacy, security, digital footprint (reputation), sexuality online and digital potential. The video is taught in schools via logging into a web-based learning management system (LMS) or also by instructors via webinars to students anywhere in the country.
McCoubrey adds that some of the schools he works with asked their students which of the 8 modules of the MySociaLIfe program they would first choose during lockdown, and 31% of the 265 respondents said mental health would be their first choice, while maintaining focus and attention would be their second preference at 22%, accounting for more than 50% of all feedback. “A lot is going on in kids’ lives, they are missing human interaction and engagement, and are exposed to a stream of negative news – understandably many choose to escape inside social media and games.”
“In our program, we see first-hand how teens look incredibly competent online when they are using these devices and these platforms. But we can forget that, as human beings, we hide certain aspects of emotional distress, confusion, concern, or fear and anxiety, to avoid embarrassment because we experience shame or feel anxious and insecure.”
“This makes it incredibly difficult for educators and parents to deduce if something a child has experienced online is indeed troubling them. That is why we need to equip these kids with coping tools and critical thinking skills to first avoid some of these risks. And secondly, to be able to apply coping and management skills to navigate this complexity, which includes communicating with parents. Safer Internet Day is incredibly important to raise awareness of what needs to be done to protect our kids. However, to truly achieve that goal, we have to accept that making the internet a better place can only be achieved in shared responsibility between our learners, our parents, our students, our mental health professionals, and of course, social media platforms, regulators and government. We have to be realistic that the latter will take time. In other words, it’s up to us – it takes a village to raise a child,” he concludes.