Like millions of pupils in Kenya, young Eva Jerotich has access to her mother’s smartphone. At only 10 years of age, she is able to navigate its numerous apps to access millions of games and movies. On most evenings, she takes the phone from her mother and soon she is right at the centre of the internet jungle all by herself at least for the next one hour. Her 15-year-old sister, Mayanne Chepkoech, has her own phone and has accounts on Facebook and Instagram where she has built a network of mostly faceless friends with whom she chats endlessly.
Eva and Maryanne are just two out of millions of children in Kenya’s homes who have free access to the internet through smartphones. In a word, they are in a jungle without a guide.
Marc Prensky, the American writer and speaker on education, labelled them digital natives — those born in the information age and are “native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games and the internet’’ — compared to the digital immigrants who were not born during the digital transformation but have adopted most aspects of the technology. If the internet is truly a lawless jungle that is home to millions of websites with a blizzard of information, movies, games and all sorts of online activities all lumped into one free-for-all borderless and infinite superhighway, why are we allowing our children to even get close to it alone?
A recent study by the Directorate of Children’s Services aptly described how children are exposed to pornography, cyberbullying, sextortion, sexting and other forms of exploitation, including live streaming of child sexual abuse.
“In Kenya, children have low levels of awareness of the risks posed by the internet, and limited knowledge about how to get support or report concerns/disclosures. Most children do understand the risks in relation to cyberbullying but are less aware of the potential risks of sexual issues online,’’ says the research.
Data from the Communications Authority of Kenya shows that 40 per cent of the Kenyan population have access to the internet through mobile phones. This is because smartphones are cheaper and more affordable and the internet is fast becoming as easily available as is electricity. What is as clear as crystal is that smart phones, tablets and all manner of digital gadgets are not going away. They can only get slicker, more irresistible and even indispensable.
The internet too will become more ubiquitous and invisible. Increased connectivity will continue to drive a digital transformation not only in industries and business but also at home, changing how people relate to one another, share information and consume waves after waves of new information. Because this information is generally not controlled or verified, naïve consumption of it can only be disastrous.
Still, any parent fearful of the negative effects of the internet on their children does not have the option of keeping them away from mobile phones or digital gadgets, for they have attained a level of indispensability that is impossible to ignore. The only sure-fire way of shielding them from internet crooks and lies is by empowering them to distinguish between what is true or false; what is useful and what is garbage.
The Covid-19 pandemic prompted a rush for increased internet connectivity and smartphones to give children access to online lessons after all schools were closed for close to a year. This created a situation where many children were allowed free access to the internet unsupervised. So they set on a journey of adventure and exploration that engendered an obsession with the internet driven by the need to appear trendy and fashionable.
Granted, the internet is generally regulated by a range of permissions and restrictions and most digital gadgets have safety cutbacks, but these are usually viewed as curtailments to freedom rather than security features.
This is why the government must seriously consider the introduction of media literacy lessons in the school curriculum. Because the youth find themselves at the centre of major technological changes, they are bombarded by media with all sorts of ready and unfiltered information. While the legacy media is tightly controlled and follows well established traditions and values, the social media is a free-for-all environment where anything goes.
Children and teenagers are particularly susceptible to media influence as they look up to various platforms for information, entertainment and social networks. Media literacy programmes in schools could help children evaluate and deconstruct information for its accuracy and value. Such lessons can give children analytical and critical thinking tools to help them become informed citizens who can contribute to a healthy democratic society as opposed to helpless gullible individuals at the mercy of a heavily commercialised and in many cases, unethical World Wide Web.
A good point to start would be to make media literacy skills a core subject in teacher training curricula.Failure to hold our youths’ hands through this bewildering internet wilderness will reduce them to helpless zombies without a semblance of identity.