As we mark a year since the pandemic upended our lives and ushered us into our homes, one of the many remarkable shifts that took place was our increased reliance on the Internet. In March of 2020, global internet traffic rose between 15-30 percent within a few days, fueled by the transformation of our homes into offices and classrooms, along with our increased appetite for video streaming, gaming, social media, and online shopping. In the early days of the pandemic, children were shuttled into online spaces to maintain their progress as learners, and stayed there to maintain social connections or pass the time when other options were unavailable.
When the new academic year began in the fall, students across the U.S. had different experiences – from in-person to fully remote to hybrid models of schooling. Those differences remain, but Internet use is up among all kids. As a parent, I believe children have benefited from this newfound screen time when learning and healthy social connections are nurtured as I have seen happen with my own children. But I do worry that in this moment, when parents and schools are burdened with the added responsibilities brought on by the pandemic, many children have gone deeper into the Internet without guidance or the skills to deftly navigate it.
Social media bubbles, deceptive advertising, risks to privacy and personal information, misinformation, misrepresentation – these are just some of the issues we must better understand in order to counter or at least not be overpowered by them. With 4.66 billion Internet users, 2 million+ mobile apps, and over 1.1 billion websites in the world, there are a lot of people, content, opportunities and risks that remain largely unchecked and easily accessible to all, including the youngest among us. Giving our children the skills – the digital and media literacy skills – to have power over their own safety, wellness, and success when we have propelled them into online spaces at such young ages is our collective responsibility and we cannot wait any longer.
Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. Teaching everyone these skills, starting at a young age, seems such an easy argument to make. In reality, it is not happening at any broad, systemic, sweeping level. I saw this when pre-pandemic I entered classrooms and shared my knowledge with students across the United States and elsewhere. I know from the thousands of parents I’ve interacted with over the last dozen years that they don’t know what their role is in helping their children with these skills. I hear from educators and school administrators that it is needed, but they often don’t have the resources to support it.
The absence of media literacy skills is where we are today, when people believe the first thing they see in a search engine is the truth, are mystified when something they viewed in one app appears on another or are deceived by a manipulated video to engage in risky behaviors during a pandemic or question the outcome of an election.
There are many of us dedicated to ensuring our children are ready for the world they live in. Organizations like Media Literacy Now are pushing for state legislatures to prioritize media literacy education in schools, but report only 14 states demonstrating any form of leadership on the topic. The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), on whose board I serve, has been growing its membership, raising awareness, supporting educators, and building alliances to make media literacy highly valued and widely practiced. These organizations need and deserve our support.
My own organization has invested years in promoting digital citizenship, online safety and media literacy education in communities around the world. We have also begun to couple that effort by developing free tools such as Trend Micro Check (real-time scam detection) and Trend Micro Family (safe Internet filtering for children) that we hope can help assist the effort. None of us are giving up this fight especially at a time when increased screen time for kids has been of great concern and as we begin our process of reflection on what we learned from the pandemic and how we will apply that in the year ahead.
According to Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, Executive Director of NAMLE, “The future of our country depends on our children’s ability to successfully navigate the media-rich environment in which they are growing up. We must make media literacy education for every child a national priority.”
Perhaps this will be a wish realized soon.
Lynette Owens is the Founder and Global Director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families program with the mission of helping kids around the world become great digital citizens. Founded in 2008, the program has now reached over 2.8 million students, parents and teachers in 20 countries.