Media literacy lessons will help kids navigate the internet safely
Like millions of students in Kenya, young Eva Jerotich has access to her mother’s smartphone. At just 10 years old, she is able to navigate her many apps to access millions of games and movies. Most evenings, she picks up her mother’s phone and soon finds herself alone in the center of the internet jungle, at least for the next hour. Her 15-year-old sister, Mayanne Chepkoech, has her own phone and has accounts on Facebook and Instagram where she has built a network of mostly faceless friends with whom she chats incessantly.
Eva and Maryanne are just two of the millions of children in Kenyan homes who have free internet access via smartphones. In a word, they are in a jungle without a guide.
Marc Prensky, the American writer and lecturer on education, called them digital natives – those who were born in the information age and are “native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games and of the internet” – compared to digital immigrants who were not born during digital transformation but have embraced most aspects of technology. If the internet is truly a lawless jungle that is home to millions of websites with a blizzard of news, movies, games and all sorts of online activities, all bundled up in a free-for-all, borderless and infinite highway, why do we allow our children to even approach it alone?
A recent study by the Directorate of Children’s Services aptly describes how children are exposed to pornography, cyberbullying, sextortion, sexting and other forms of exploitation, including dissemination live child sexual abuse.
“Children in Kenya have little awareness of the risks posed by the internet and have limited knowledge of how to get help or report concerns or disclosures. Most children understand the risks of cyberbullying, but are less aware of the potential risks of sexual problems online,’ the research indicates.
Data from the Communications Authority of Kenya shows that 40% of the Kenyan population has access to the internet through mobile phones. Indeed, smartphones are cheaper and more affordable and the internet is quickly becoming as readily available as electricity. What is crystal clear is that smartphones, tablets and all manner of digital gadgets are not going away. They can only become smoother, more irresistible and even indispensable.
The Internet will also become more ubiquitous and invisible. Increased connectivity will continue to drive digital transformation not only in industries and businesses, but also at home, changing the way people interact, share information and consume wave after wave of new information. Because this information is generally not controlled or verified, its naive consumption can only be disastrous.
Yet any parent fearful of the negative effects of the Internet on their children has no option to keep them away from cell phones or digital gadgets, as they have reached a level of indispensability that is impossible to ignore. The only surefire way to protect them from scammers and lies on the Internet is to empower them to distinguish between what is true or false; what is useful and what is trash.
The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted a rush for increased internet connectivity and smartphones to give children access to online lessons after all schools were closed for nearly a year. This created a situation where many children were allowed free unsupervised internet access. So they embarked on a journey of adventure and exploration that spawned an internet obsession driven by the need to appear fashionable and fashionable.
Granted, the internet is generally regulated by a series of permissions and restrictions and most digital gadgets have security reductions, but these are generally seen as restrictions on freedom rather than security features.
This is why the government must seriously consider introducing media literacy courses into the school curriculum. Because young people find themselves at the center of major technological changes, they are bombarded by the media with all kinds of ready-made and unfiltered information. While legacy media is tightly controlled and follows well-established traditions and values, social media is a free-for-all environment where anything goes.
Children and adolescents are particularly susceptible to the influence of the media as they consult various information, entertainment and social media platforms. Media literacy programs in schools could help children assess and deconstruct information for its accuracy and value. Such lessons can equip children with analytical and critical thinking tools to help them become informed citizens who can contribute to a healthy democratic society, as opposed to helpless gullible individuals at the mercy of a heavily commercialized World Wide Web and , in many cases unethical.
A good starting point would be to make media literacy a core subject in teacher training curricula. If we don’t hold hands with our young people in this bewildering wasteland of the internet, they will become helpless zombies with no semblance of identity.
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