Media literacy week calls for re-examining our views as educators
Safer internet day, which is in Finland celebrated as “Media literacy week”, once again puts young peoples media skills onto the spotlight and challenges educators to examine our competencies in supporting those skills. It is also wise for us to stop and consider how we generally see those skills. One thing should be clear to everyone at least reasonably knowledgeable in the recent developments of digitalisation and young peoples media use. The environments and platforms where young people interact with digital media are so varied that the field is much more complicated than before, even if the core of media skills is unchanged.
Staying on top of digitalisation and technological developments can be laborious at best for educators, mainly because of the speedy nature of progress. It is comforting, however, that we do not need to know what the latest (let alone next) big social media platform or technological innovation will be. It is much more vital for us to see the big picture and the overall effects of digitalisation on the lives of young people. These effects extend to nearly every avenue of young peoples lives.
Are you also sleeping in a library?
To this day, you can come across the assumption of the existence of “digital natives”, who automatically and flawlessly have command of all required digital devices and services. The thought of a young person knowing everything there is to know about digital media and technology just because they’re young is just as ridiculous as us sleeping in a library and therefore knowing everything about the world.
The digital gap is real, even if we would like to think otherwise. It’s not only about age, either, but can be looked at for example like this:
- Access to technology
- Technology skills and -competencies
- Understanding of how technology works
Having access to technology is simply whether a young person can use the same digital technology in their daily lives as their peers. We tend to quickly think, for example, that “all kids have smartphones these days”. While this is mostly true, it is also true that the few young people who don’t have the smartphones to run the latest digital apps are often the ones who are already under a certain amount of risk to be excluded from their social circles. The same is true for other technologies as well; some young people have, for example, access to a modern computer and a 3D -printer at home and can realise their creativity in these avenues and learn valuable technology skills.
The rapid development of digital technology can create inequality among youngsters. Who has the means and the possibilities to use technology and who doesn’t? A core value and goal in youth work is to promote equality and inclusion in society, so it should be a natural progression to include the promotion of digital competencies and technology skills in all forms of youth work. Likewise, it is the task of youth work to level the playing field between young people, and making technology available for all young people can be an excellent approach to realise this goal.
Media and technology skills and finding your tribe
Young people need an increasingly diverse set of digital skills to find their peer groups and interface with them. If and when youth work is tasked to support young people in forming these connections, we need to understand this fact: It is tough (if not impossible) to keep in touch with friends or find new groups to bond with if one’s digital competences are lacking. As educators, we need to critically examine our approaches and evaluate whether we have a sufficient grasp of young peoples social dynamics in digital environments. Do we understand how young people form and maintain relationships on digital platforms? Do we have a broad enough understanding of (social) media phenomena and young peoples online culture?
Digitality also brings its flavour into young people’s challenges when growing up. A young person growing into their own has always tried to define themselves in relation to people around them. Now it is increasingly done to the image of people on social media and all other media content they daily consume. A youth worker’s task is to support the young person to critically examine the media environment that they are reflecting their developing identity on. The same is true for active citizenship and activism. It is undoubtedly hard to influence society in 2020 if you are out of touch with digital platforms or unable to critically assess information that floods all social media. Activism may also require access to certain technologies, which brings us back to the previous thought of youth work as an enabler.
One definition of media education is a goal-oriented interaction, intending to foster the learner’s media literacy. I would here highlight the goals: what is our goal in youth work regarding media literacy? Are we focusing on single phenomena or should we instead strive for an approach where we support young people’s competencies, skills and attitudes towards digital media and technology? My view is clear: if we want to continue as a unique actor, connected to all aspects of their lives, we also must maintain a wholesome look into the effects of digitalisation in their daily life.
From technology skills to digital life skills
For a long time, the discourse on digital skills has mainly revolved around employability. It is true that digital skills have a significant impact on the future employability of young people: no matter what their (and our!) future jobs are, technology will be somehow present in the daily work. When we talk about young people’s technology skills, however, we should have a broader perspective and focus more on, for example, digital well-being or digital life skills. Passive and technical skills aren’t enough.
I have stated several times above that technology is ever-present in all avenues of young people’s lives. A crucial part of media skills is indeed understanding how the technologies that are supplying us with media content work. Before (and still) it is a vital part of media education to equip young people to evaluate critically whether the content they see is ideologically or politically motivated. Now, it is also crucial to understand that there is a certain amount of technology selecting the content we see, usually based on an approximation of what keeps us for the longest in that particular service. Understanding this reality makes the big picture of the content we see seem a lot smaller. We need to educate young people so they can understand how technology works. Otherwise, they cannot be active actors in this media environment.
Youth work can and should have their own perspective on supporting young people’s technology skills. If we can interweave technology with all our daily youth work activities, we have a very high chance of supporting young people’s varied skills. Since we are not bound by learning goals as tightly as the formal education field is, we can have a much broader outlook on digitalisation. We also have the chance as an actor in young people’s spare time to reach young people that haven’t necessarily been interested in technology-related activities and break traditional gender moulds in hobbies.
Media projects, maker activities or other approaches in digital youth work shouldn’t be implemented on a full scale, however, before first clarifying all the related youth work goals. When we use the opportunities provided by digital media and technology with a goal-oriented approach, we can potentially offer young people an environment to not only learn new digital skills but also to foster their creativity, belief in their chances and strengthen their social skills. These are all competencies they need in the future.
Mediaprojekteja, maker-toimintaa tai muitakaan digitaalisen nuorisotyön lähestymistapoja ei kannata kuitenkaan lähteä täydellä teholla soveltamaan ennen kuin on ensin kirkastettu oman työyhteisön nuorisotyöllinen (mukaanlukien mediakasvatuksellinen) visio ja sen tavoitteet. Kun digitaalisen median ja teknologian mahdollisuuksia käytetään nuorisotyössä tavoitteellisesti ja harkiten, voidaan nuorille tarjota toimintaympäristö, jossa he pääsevät paitsi kehittämään digitaalista osaamistaan, myös vahvistamaan itseilmaisua, luovuutta ja sosiaalisia taitoja. Näitä kaikkia he tarvitsevat myös tulevaisuudessa.