Friday, March 24, 2023 | Ramadan 1, 1444 H
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Content critical to how media influences children


here are times when it feels as if we still need to teach how to lit a fire using stones while most people are already using laser. All because a little girl, named Mona, who is turning three years’ old. I met Mona and her mother in a shop the other day. Mona was busy scanning through YouTube channels for a theme for her birthday party. In between cartoons and kids’ stories, she would sometimes watch for a little longer for something that caught her attention. Talking to her mum in Arabic and to me in English, this little girl is not only bilingual but an expert — she knew what she was looking for.

From an early age, children are discovering social media at the same time they are learning to speak, read and socialise. Like Mona, many other kids are familiar with the characters in the fictitious world, such as Mike Mouse, Negara, and Merida.

These infants are familiar with YouTube. Through cartoons, children are learning about behaviour, attitude and communication. Toddlers as young as one year are on social media. Some even have their own account on Instagram or their own YT channel.

Mona is just an example of a growing media divide in society. Children aged 0-6 years -and already labelled ‘digitods’ — are growing up alongside communication technology innovations. They are comfortable with easy-to-use new apps. Bright coloured interactive applications can hold kids’ attention while opening a space for a lucrative branding and marketing — that directly advertises to them.

Nowadays, children are better educated, more socially connected and even better informed than any previous generation. We live at a time in which to have an opinion and the boldness to express it is a sign of audacity. There would be those who would warn against children’s use of smartphones and social networking, pointing out the inappropriate advertising, the portrayals of violence, etc.

It is true though that there are a number of reasons for infants to use their parents’ smartphones or even have their own. Among several explanations research studies pointed out are that parents allow the use of smartphones and social media as a distraction, a discipline tool, or a reward. Bluntly, the digital babysitter. We must recognise that despite children’s digital abilities they haven’t yet developed awareness to prevent them from what they might stumble upon online.

While our youngsters are able to lit the fire with a laser beam, there are those who are still talking about how to use stones. I am being quite metaphorical. Nobody wants the misery of anybody — people or institutions — but there is no darkness more sombre and tragic than that of being detached from reality.

Changes are happening, whether we like it or not. New business models, money-making, politics, and models of education are all transforming. The chain of subtle as well as brusque shifts is a test to decision-makers and should be enough to enlighten those who still insist on using the stones. In about ten years from now, Mona will be a teenager living in a society where paper-and-pen versus smartphones will be irrelevant. Her digital literacy and skills will transcend that of media controllers.

Children as young as Mona are already delineating themselves as media consumers; they are able to process content and handle devices- though confined within the space of the app which strives to provide a great deal of pleasure to the younger users. Children’s usage of devices is an inevitable consequence of our digital life — while content is critical to how media influence children.

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