World Literacy Day takes place this Sunday, 8 September 2019. It is a day set aside by the United Nations to universally celebrate literacy and to reflect on the world’s remaining literacy challenges. The foundation of this is the original three ‘Rs’- reading, writing and arithmetic, but the ubiquity of smart phones, fake news and social media has created the need for an additional basic skill: Media literacy.
“Connected kids are relentlessly targeted by big tech and media companies, gaming houses, video content and other content that’s way beyond their years – all created and promoted by people they’ve never met and have no reason to trust,” says Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife, which supports parents, teachers and psychologists to help children feel safer and behave smarter online.
“Furthermore, this is all happening at a time when tweens and teens are in crucial stages of their emotional and intellectual development, underpinned by an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, raging hormones, and the very typical teenage need of being desperate to fit in and belong,” he says.
McCoubrey adds that various massive media corporations have created algorithms that ensure users are the editors of the content they receive. However, this does produce the positive outcome one would expect, as users unconsciously select the content that re-confirms their bias too, limiting and narrowing their view of the world.
“This is why media literacy education is such an essential part of tween and teenage education, giving kids the tools, habits and skills of expression that they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators, and active citizens in today’s world – all skills that certainly can’t be shared via a YouTube video!” McCoubrey adds.
Media literacy is the ability to access, analyse, evaluate, create, and act, using all forms of communication. It also promotes an awareness of media intention and influence, and teaches people how to take an active and considered approach to how they create and consume media, by providing a framework to access, analyse, and evaluate messages, whether in print, online, or in broadcast media.
While stats for South Africa are sketchy, Americans are exposed to as many as 10,000 adverts per day, and it’s realistic to say that online South Africans are not far behind. These are the ads that are telling teens how thin or ‘buff’ they should be, what they should eat and drink, what’s cool or uncool, and what they should be thinking, wearing and doing.
It’s true that parents can’t be around at every minute of the day to help children assess each message critically. Indeed, that’s completely unrealistic and simply a bad idea, as they’ll never learn the skills that they need to be good digital (and IRL) citizens if they’re not equipped with the tools they need to navigate their way through the media landscape themselves.
It's time to commemorate World Literacy Day 2019 by equipping children with the knowledge and skills they need to be critical of what media they consume, and enable them to control their interpretation of what they see and hear, rather than letting media control them.