Dr. Elaine Heffner: Spotting junk
More and more attention is being paid to the dangers of social media in general, but particularly to its effect on children. Initially portrayed as a means of connecting people and bringing them together, the destructive role of these media in driving people apart has become apparent. The prevalence of fake news has been disruptive in elections and in maintaining a common understanding of basic facts.
The impact of technology on children has been discussed for a while now, the question having been raised as to whether its effect is good or bad. One area of research has been on how technology affects the way the architecture of children’s brains actually develops.
Another part of the discussion speaks to the fact that children’s interpersonal interactions are more and more becoming inter-technology interactions. The question asked is whether they will lose the capacity to relate to real people and things having been raised on interactions with a screen.
Now, however, the new concern expressed in experiments involving journalist and educators, is whether it is possible to teach students how to spot junk information online as part of a program of media literacy. France is coordinating one of the world’s largest media and literacy efforts and the government has increased funding for courses about the downsides of the online world. Teachers and educational professionals receive government training on the subject, and in some places young adults are required to complete an internet literacy course to receive welfare benefits.
The French Education Ministry is adding an elective high school media course on the internet and the media to the national curriculum making it available to thousands of students. The head of the main program coordinating the effort says the younger you start the better and is pushing for more media education as a vital need and a threat.
Internet literacy programs are also growing outside of France such as the News Literacy Project in the United States, but these are funded by foundations and companies like Facebook and Google. European Union officials have called on countries in the bloc to expand education programs as part of a push against misinformation and election interference.
In this country, there has been growing awareness of the degree to which young people obtain their knowledge of the news from social media, with limited understanding of the validity of what they take in. There seems to be minimal attention given in school to discussion of current events. Students note that teachers stay away from anything that might be controversial and give the impression, whether accurate or not, that such discussion is not permissible.
France’s centralized strategy is said to be unique and Sandra Laffont, a French journalist has developed a program to teach students about journalism, social media and internet misinformation. Keeping lessons simple she incorporates Twitter and YouTube, sharing links to websites that students can use as references to check basic facts. Explaining the basics of how journalists gather and confirm facts hopefully may help reverse some students’ mistrust of the media, as well as help them develop a more critical eye for what they see online.
France appears to be ahead of many countries in seeing the need for expanded media and internet literacy. Efforts have been given new urgency after the most recent American and French presidential elections were targeted by Russian misinformation campaigns with misleading posts or videos that were shared thousands of times.
The world of technology is here to stay and it is one in which our children will be required to function. Can we prepare them to do so?
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.