Last March, during a heated debate at the World Wide Web 2016 Conference in Montreal, a researcher yelled at an American colleague: “You don’t create a digital society just by giving away iPads to five year old kids”.
That blunt statement raised a thunder of applause from the audience and gave most of my colleagues great satisfaction.
The researcher was expressing strong discontent about a recurring assumption made by some specialists in modern education: if you provide them with a connected device, kids will immediately understand how to use it, create, develop and be empowered by the mechanisms of the digital world. We’re digital immigrants, they’re digital natives.
Digital literacy is not automatic
Even outside the education world, the mainstream belief is that kids born within the digital age know how to swipe right and left by age one, can perfectly use mom’s iPhone by age five and have way more online friends than dad by age 10.
This is true, but it’s definitely not sufficient to pretend that digital natives are able to navigate the online world on their own, without taking enormous risks for their identity, their future and their direct entourage. For instance being unable to understand some fundamental web sociotechnical mechanisms, such as the permanence of data traces, digital identities, or the difference between private and public online spaces, could lead to psychological stress, permanent damage to reputation or even criminal behavior.
In 2010, a survey by LSE researchers found that "children do not automatically know how to use digital devices and aren’t naturally digitally literate", seriously challenging this widely-held but unscientific assumption about so-called digital natives.
The elephant in the room
The Internet is never explained as a technical reality, something you'd need to understand. The question of digital literacy and web education is the elephant in the room.
For example, terms and conditions are boring text you skip as fast as possible, eager to connect, to share, to expose. Yet digital literacy could hinder this ‘streamlined’ process by forcing users to ask questions, to look into the details, and to avoid commercial traps.
Alongside this lack of digital literacy in adults, it’s easy to understand the main reasons behind the outraged reaction at the conference: modern societies commit an awful crime by refusing to admit that kids are left alone on the Internet.
Youngsters, left to their own devices on the Internet, can become real-life victims of the underlying magical attributes of the web. No borders, no limits, no direct surveillance (well, at least not by parents), no physical interaction, no filters.
When direct danger was limited to five blocks around the house, life was way easier. Now, young kids can chat with people in China, buy SuperCell credits with Mom’s Paypal account and browse billions of pieces of undesirable content, from ISIS recruitment videos to KKK-linked supremacists websites.
Ask the kids
To verify my assessment, I went back to school. I visited five schools in Beirut and asked the kids (aged between 10 and 15 years old) about their experience with the Internet.
Surprisingly, most of the kids I met have very little knowledge of how the Internet actually works.
They know how to do basic searches on Google, how to watch a video on Youtube and share content on Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. But only 5 percent of the 200 kids I met contributed at some point to active content creation on the web (less than the ‘1 for 10’ rule of active participation on the web).
Their understanding of the mechanisms of information sharing, global networks, cloud computing and personal data privacy is close to non-existent. They have no idea where the data goes or is stored when they post something or upload content on social media. They barely know about global surveillance (“I saw a movie about it!”) or the tricky commercial imperatives of big digital companies.
One could ask why they need to understand this? They are users and it’s just like entertainment for them.
But how can we build a digital generation if we’re satisfied with a superficial understanding of the phenomena that will regulate most of its life in the future?
Digital is about complexity
The Information Age is all about mechanisms, algorithms, complex systems, interconnections and interactions between humans and machines.
To avoid creating a generation of passive technology slaves, educational institutions must start building digital literacy programs that will have to go far, far beyond Word and Excel.
While touring Lebanese schools for answers, I noticed the misunderstanding between awareness programs on ‘digital life’ and the real need for digital literacy, even among teachers and parents. Awareness programs are designed to ‘protect’, rather than empower. Most of them are like road security programs: they teach you how to buckle your seatbelt, but not how to better drive your car.
It’s time we digitally empower the new generation, going beyond the simple repetition of simple gestures.
Digital literacy starts by understanding underlying technology (networks, servers, applications) and expanding the conceptualization of the digital space to governance and ‘netizenship’.
An informed user would be able to choose between technologies and platforms, between formats and types of content. He/she would have better control over options or parameters and experience safer and more efficient browsing. An empowered user would be able to understand the tricky logic of web social machines, like crowdsourcing or social collaboration.
From there, new digital phenomena, such as big data or blockchains, would just be a natural next level in understanding, rather than entirely impenetrable ideas.
Building the future web
If we want to help the new generation to create the much-vaunted knowledge economy, powered by digital technologies and an efficient use of the Internet, we need to understand that using technology is not enough.
Teenagers and younger Internet users should leave behind their passive attitude towards technologies and learn how to actually build the web.
Educational institutions should invest in advanced digital literacy programs immediately, to build a generation of conscientious makers and not just a horde of uninformed technology consumers.
Feature image via Wikimedia Commons