MySociaLife

Media literacy. DTRT.

Do you know what LMIRL stands for in a WhatsApp or text? How about WTTP? Or PIR? The answers are “Let’s Meet In Real Life’ ‘Want To Trade Pictures?’ and ‘Parent in Room’.

Smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, PCs and laptops, LTE, 5G, and WiFi have meant explosive access to the internet, especially for kids, who just a decade or so earlier wouldn’t have enjoyed such exposure or reach. But as each one stepped into the world wide web, who provided them with a guide, or an understanding of the vast landscape of media, influence, opportunity and risk that comes with consuming stories? Dependent on household income, teens and pre-teens will access devices at different ages, but I would hazard that only a tiny minority are educated at ‘inception’ about what it means to be media literate and online savvy. 

MySociaLife teaches digital citizenship, online safety and media literacy to almost 4000 students a year and we teach them 8 modules be delivering these modules online or in person, term-after-term, over a year (ie resulting in 32000 learners or ‘seats’). We also teach their parents, their teachers, mental health professionals and GPs in South Africa, now in the thousands. We have requests for our Program from schools in China, Australia and Canada already which are in discussion. We have started teaching large corporates simply because business leaders are concerned that their vast workforce may not be media literal digital citizens and could drag their brand into reputational harm. As Warren Buffett wisely imparted, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

For the grownups, we can feel a little less sympathy, because it is understood that adults need to self-educate if we want to take control of our lives. By the time we reach adulthood, we (ideally) grasp that the future lies in our hands. But for teens and pre-teens, we cannot hold the same expectation. Adolescence is about being educated if you are fortunate enough, but then forgetting or ignoring the lessons, and then making the mistakes enough times or failing the tests to later force absorption of the teaching and bring about change. 

But what happens when our kids are not taught about life online and so do not even have the basic information and tools to manage the complexity of privacy, security, identity, sexuality, mental health, reputation on this high-speed train of transient content? 

We have the answer to this question. We are frequently dumbfounded by what we hear around South Africa from teenagers who reveal the extent of the challenges within social media and other aspects of their dynamic and exciting life online. We hear of ‘sextortion’ rackets in which teens are persuaded to share naked images and then bribed for money or more pictures, we see identity theft in which a Grade 10 loses her entire account of 1450 friends, with the cybercriminal casually approaching and later threatening the student’s sister and mother. We see incidents of ‘catfishing’ in which adults pretend to be to kids to approach them, or boys pretend to be attractive young girls to try and get sexts from them. Our work in schools offers a privileged vantage point and our unique differentiator is that we are good listeners. 

Armed with this knowledge of where our kids find themselves, how should we help them in the form of a solution?

Kobus van Wyk, The CEO of ADESSA (Associated Distributors of Educational Supplies in Southern Africa) proposed this to me in a recent Zoom call. He holds up a pencil and says that decades ago we were taught how to hold it between thumb and forefinger. When we hold a pencil like a lollipop it doesn’t function optimally, and normally attracts attention from others with critical comments. Van Wyk believes we need to attend to smart device and app education with similar vigour and attention from early stages in school. But, moreover, what we do with that pencil – the power of our words to help or harm – is also equally important, but less talked about. 

In a world of comparison on social media, we would see a different society if we were taught to employ empathy and choose our words wisely. Digital citizenship is a multi-dimensional curriculum guiding learners to be responsible online. Media literacy has been defined as “being able to access, analyze, and evaluate information, which we receive through media. Being media literate means being able to create media messages and to use the technology tools available to us. It means being able to think critically and speak confidently.”

If you have seen any of the well-known movies like The Great Hack or The Social Dilemma on Netflix, these reveal an important truth about where we find ourselves – we are mere pawns in the attention economy, where monolithic social and technology platforms fight for our time online because time means ad placements, and that results in income and happy shareholder value. These media masters have worked out what humans want – photos, moving images, bold headlines, sensationalism – which is not that new, but the novelty lies in the algorithms that collect our data and serve us more of what we like and want, or what outrages us, to keep us online. 

In these movies, their failing was that none of them delves deep enough into the impact on our impressionable kids. Media always had influence, but now it’s on another level. The Social Dilemma worked so well because it used the senior product developers of these platforms to admit to the fact that social media is not what they hoped it would b and reveal the darker side of corporate greed and competition. However, it failed to show how the tentacles that stem from this reach out and touch our kids in many ways, eroding self-esteem, exacerbating mental health challenges, and putting teenagers at risk.

In 2020 we have almost 4.5bn humans online, of which almost 4bn are on mobile devices. TikTok has had, prior to a recent ban in India, 800m monthly users, of which 40% were teenagers. That’s power. And I have to say that MySociaLife has been surprised by the dynamic activism of this generation possessing an unapologetic, vocal unwillingness to tolerate some of the irresponsible behaviour of the generations before them – climate change, #MeToo and #BLM. It’s no longer a case of “kids should be seen and not heard.” These adolescents believe that they have a right to impart their perspective and (often naive) wisdom because this planet and this multicultural diversity will indeed be theirs, and their children’s, to manage. In that event, it appears that South Africa should have done a much better job in educating our 12 million school-going learners to prepare and ready them for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These kids are the future of work. They are our future workers.

But education hasn’t happened for a number of reasons. In some parts of the country, we cannot even get basic literacy right. We have a long way to go. Government’s mindset is to provide tablets to reach 4IR goals, and not provide foundational education in how to use the tablets for good, for change, for success. They are interested in what we teach in our Program but it’s long-winded and complicated to adopt the curriculum. We aren’t holding our breath.

It’s hard for adults to actually get it. They also consume content rather obliviously and lack the sufficient critical thinking skills expected of an older and wiser generation to question the authenticity of the text, images and captions that they are presented with. There’s no secret that many media titles and outlets lean to one side or another, to left or right, or far left or far right. In fact, a recent infographic painted a unique picture of the somewhat transparent bias within a number of the world’s most popular news outlets. 

In fact, this Is arguably the first time in history that an area of popular culture is being navigated by the child and the parent at the same. Everyone is learning on the job. 

So, there is only one solution and that is to get the ball rolling. Education leaders need to do a much better job of intervention. There is so much to gain through digital citizenship, media literacy, and critical thinking training simply because of the sheer volume of screen time and the diversity of touchpoints and devices which will not abate – teenagers are consuming one hour more media every year. And as they do this, the meaningful connections and moments in their lives, the key minutes and hours of face-to-face contact and sharing of values is starting to dwindle. 

Digital identity, critical thinking, media literacy and fake news, privacy and cybersecurity, digital footprint and reputation, sexuality online, empathy, mind health and resilience – these are what we teach, and the students love it. This is square in their ballpark, but we reveal the corners they haven’t visited – the dark and the light, and share skills that may last them a lifetime and change the way they see technology, the internet, devices and social media. For better and for worse. It’s time for the government and education leaders to DTRT. Do The Right Thing.

The effect of social media on the subconscious mind

We’re seen as social media and online safety experts, and we also help kids to move into exploration and excellence online. And in order to do that, we need to get them to understand what the media does to them, what impact it has on them, and what this visual world imprints into their consciousness.

This is quite profound because when you think about the life that we have on smart devices and particularly social media, we are spending so much of our day on YouTube and Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and we are scrolling all the time… we are looking at and consuming media and content through our eyes. Once it gets processed in our brain, it then gets stored in our own operating system – in our own iOS. And of course, if there is something that is either really exciting or really, really disturbing, then that, of course, can get more deeply entrenched in that iOS. It can change the perspective of the way in which we see the world.

For example, If you keep scrolling through content that has some influence about the way in which people look – that could be body shape, or it could be how wealthy they are or what clothes they have, or what privilege they have. And when you repeatedly look at that content, it shapes your view of both yourself and that type of stereotyped image or group. And yet, we all know that what you see online is not necessarily true – however, it still has a psychological effect on us.

It all started by a visual representation, which we consumed, processed and stored. And of course, if the memory isn’t a strong one, then it just gets shelved, or archived and slowly fades away. But for kids, they are a little bit more vulnerable than that. They’re in a very interesting stage of their neuro-biological development. We need to understand their increasing life online. They’re reporting that they are using YouTube and Netflix and social media channels as their news services, as the inspiration, and if that content and stimulus doesn’t have the right influence, then it’s going to change the lens through which they look at life and other people.

Now, what can we do about that? Well, we need to talk to them about it.

Are they going to get offline because of this information – in fact, is that even the goal? That’s up to the principal and the teachers during school time or break time, and the parents while at home. But one guarantee is that they will be using devices for the rest of their lives and now is the time to entrench foundational critical thinking with regards to all types of content, influence, fraud, misinformation. This isn’t fear-mongering against social media, these are just the absolute basics which have been missed. And it starts with understanding what we’re doing as human beings when we’re consuming all of this visual content.

They do need to be able to stop, to turn a device over, and to take a break, to ask questions, to be media literate, to find out whether “is this fake news? I wonder…, I mean, maybe I’ll ask some friends… or maybe I’ll ask a parent, or I’ll ask an adult, is this true?” And if the content in which they’re seeing is not making them feel good… to stop. Just something as simple as that – just stop and ask a question. “Actually, I’m not sure if this is making me feel so good”.

These are things that happen invisibly. They happen automatically, to both adults and children. It’s simply because we don’t understand that we are consuming visual stimulus, processing it, and in some cases, storing it. And if we do that repeatedly, then that starts to change the way we view things around us, and the way we see the world. And that is something which is incredibly important and worth playing for.

Raising a Parent: What it means to consciously parent

– Article written by our conscious parenting consultant, Merishka Megnath

It must be named that it is normal to feel overwhelmed in these unprecedented times. Overwhelm is a natural feeling in such uncertainty. There is global weathering of a pandemic that is changing our lives and these changes that are coming in thick and fast. This can surely feel disorientating in ways. Again, what is felt now, is valid. Here is an invitation to pause. To take a deep breath. To take another deep breath.

We may forget or may not even consider that an integral part of parenting is parental self-enquiry and self-care. One of the greatest gifts of parenting is developing self-compassion. Why should we not be patient and kind to ourselves, after all, that would create space for us to be compassionate to those we love in times of trigger, fear and helplessness. We are living lives of fluid familial and societal roles challenging us to look at time and energy as new currencies, new resources.

How do we generate and replenish these currencies, these resources? First, we pause and invite ourselves to take baby steps in our homelife using tools for connection and cohesion. We can then utilize a knowledge system that shares the know-how of how to establish a foundation for self-enquiry and self-care from which grows a space of being supported, resourcing ourselves as we try to support our loved ones.

Conscious parenting is an approach to child-rearing. It is based on connection as a means for co-operation and growth within the parent-child relationship. It lives within a space of present-time, individualized understanding of the child and appropriate, essential knowledge of human growth and development. From this space, both parent and child tread their respective paths of growth in a healthy, supportive and independent way. Family life becomes a dance of connection`; including missed steps, stepping on toes all whilst finding one’s own and each other’s rhythm through a deep respect for the music and harmony of Life.

In contrast, unconscious parenting relies on fear, consequence and punishment to motivate a child to co-operate. It comes from a place of ignorance based on unquestioned ideas about relationship and relating. Co-operation between parent and child is then difficult to establish and maintain. Why? Firstly, we simply don’t have holistic knowledge to guide us in parenting and secondly, we look to a child’s behaviour alone to decide the path of action. Action ends up being a reaction rather a response – unrelated and impulsive consequence, punishment. Unconscious parenting is unsustainable in creating connection and co-operation between parent and child. Many of us have subjectively experienced the insufficiency of unconscious parenting yet we keep going back to it. A parent can use the action of consequence or punishment such as a timeout or locking away a cellular phone but how many days or weeks until the action is required again, and again? More concerning is that the real issue of boundary setting has not even been touched on in an individualized connected way.

An important, foundational principle learned through one of my mentors Rebecca Thompson Hitt is that behaviour and behavioural patterns of a child is communication. It is a signal to the parent to actually look beyond it. A parent finds opportunity to grow; to develop the pause, feel into your body if triggered, use a method of regulation and then connect to the child to regulate him or her. This must happen before a child can truly learn or understand anything of benefit. Important also to note is that the parent is modelling healthy self-regulation to the child. This is part of the process of healing and growing, as opposed to using an externalized, one-size-fits-all action such punishment.

Ultimately, in looking beyond the behaviour, we learn to create the space needed to look into our inner world of thoughts and emotions so we can help others in navigating theirs. This is part of what connection means. We can then begin to carefully construct a healthy boundary for the child’s benefit. Again, receptivity and learning are only possible when a human being is regulated. Regulation and dysregulation of the nervous system forms part of the conscious parenting knowledge system and it is conveyed in a simple way so that this knowledge can be used practically within the family.

This is an invitation to raise ourselves with understanding, patience and connection. This is what allows us to parent from such a place. When we see our children as teachers too, opportunities for growth in present time appear. Relationship begins to rise beyond the taints of past fears and future anxieties. Slowly and steadily we begin to question and go beyond labels of “good”, “bad”, “obedient” and “like me”; the very labels that we misplace on our children in vain effort to find our own worth and wholeness. A worth and wholeness that is birthright to each and every human being. Mom and dad, you are whole and worthy just as you are. You always were and always will be. May your strength and capabilities for life and living rise from this deep-seated knowing!

– Article written by our conscious parenting consultant, Merishka Megnath

Safer Internet Day 2021: Learners struggling during the pandemic

More time online, less education, a problem for SA’s teens

Safer Internet Day is being celebrated in South Africa on Tuesday, February 9th, with the theme of bringing various stakeholders ‘Together For A Better Internet’. Humanity is at its most advanced point of access to smart technology, data, games, apps and social media platforms, which has accelerated many industries – like eCommerce, e-learning and streaming entertainment – by three to five years. But with so much additional time in lockdown, and out of schools, due to the pandemic, there remains a gaping hole in digital education to guide and protect kids online, some of whom are using devices for many more hours than they were a year ago.

South Africa’s leading Digital Life Skills expert, Dean McCoubrey from MySociaLife, questions whether education is doing all that it can.

He says, “Together for a better internet can be achievable if government and regulators work together with platforms to educate and protect children. But this is not even happening in most developed countries. The power of social platforms, and the failure to educate in digital citizenship, has placed the responsibility solely in the lap of parents, teachers, students, counsellors and mental health professionals to understand the extent of what children have to cope with and manage online, exacerbated by COVID-19. “Technology’s growth will not relent. Kids are using the internet more than ever before, so we will need to understand what they’re engaging with to support them.”

According to the App Annie Sate of Mobile Report 2021, casual games dominate downloads with the popularity of easy-to-use names like Among Us, ROBLOX and My Talking Tom Friends. Mobile gaming is on track to surpass $120 billion in consumer spending in 2021 — capturing 1.5x of the market compared to all other gaming platforms combined. Social media app, TikTok, with over 1.6bn downloads and 800m monthly active users sees over 1 billion video views per day.

McCoubrey believes in the power of technology and the positive benefits it can bring to our children’s digital potential, but he remarks that this can largely only be achieved when we provide them with an honest, relatable and balanced view of the prizes and pitfalls which exist in their life online. “We can show children more doors of opportunity after showing them how to become safer and smarter kids online. It leads to learning new skills, exploration and then excellence. It’s an opportunity for Africa to embrace digital literacy early.”

He adds, “For adults right now there is an overwhelming workload, as well as financial and health pressure at this time, but we will have to take ownership of the fact that we expect learners to navigate these complex devices and social media platforms, without providing them with a guide to navigate the content – and their emotional responses. It’s IQ meets EQ in a digital realm: DQ, or digital quotient.”

MySociaLife is an online life skills and digital citizenship program which operates in South African schools and provides an 8-module digital curriculum for Grade 4 to 11 students. The subjects covered include critical thinking, cyberbullying, digital identity, privacy, security, digital footprint (reputation), sexuality online and digital potential. The video is taught in schools via logging into a web-based learning management system (LMS) or also by instructors via webinars to students anywhere in the country.

McCoubrey adds that some of the schools he works with asked their students which of the 8 modules of the MySociaLIfe program they would first choose during lockdown, and 31% of the 265 respondents said mental health would be their first choice, while maintaining focus and attention would be their second preference at 22%, accounting for more than 50% of all feedback. “A lot is going on in kids’ lives, they are missing human interaction and engagement, and are exposed to a stream of negative news – understandably many choose to escape inside social media and games.”

Kids look incredibly competent online when they are using these devices and these platforms. But we can forget that, as human beings, we hide certain aspects of emotional distress, confusion, concern, or fear and anxiety, to avoid embarrassment because we experience shame or feel anxious and insecure.

“This makes it incredibly difficult for educators and parents to deduce if something a child has experienced online is indeed troubling them. That is why we need to equip these kids with coping tools and critical thinking skills to first avoid some of these risks. And secondly, to be able to apply coping and management skills to navigate this complexity, which includes communicating with parents. Safer Internet Day is incredibly important to raise awareness of what needs to be done to protect our kids. However, to truly achieve that goal, we have to accept that making the internet a better place can only be achieved in shared responsibility between our learners, our parents, our students, our mental health professionals, and of course, social media platforms, regulators and government. We have to be realistic that the latter will take time. In other words, it’s up to us – it takes a village to raise a child,” he concludes.

Information Overload in the “Information Age”

Too much information? Can there be such a thing? Well, the answer happens to be: Yes and No. In fact, information overload is starting to become a huge issue, and it affects our children.

In essence, information overload happens when your child perceives more information than they can process. Our minds are not bottomless and there’s always a risk that too much information can hurt your child’s brain.

The thing is that our cognitive processing capacity has its limits. In other words, when we get overloaded with information, our decision-making ability is compromised. If your child is overstimulated with info, they may end up making poor choices in their daily lives.

The whole concept of information overload has been around for ages. There were complaints about the issue, especially during the renaissance and the period of the industrial revolution.

In this generation, parents have an increased responsibility toward their children to define what information actually is and teach them how to defend themselves against things like false information and information overload.

Teaching your Child “Online Self-Defence” for Information Overload
As parents and teachers, it’s essential to teach your child the right values to help them circumvent the danger of information overload online.

Here are some tips for helping your youngster ditch info overload:

Clear the Mind
It’s important that we teach our children (and ourselves) to clear their minds from time to time. Getting stuck in a cycle of information can be extremely draining. Things that can help with this conscious action include meditating and deep breathing exercises for letting go of unnecessary mind clutter. [2]

Stay Focussed and Limit Distractions
The younger generation tends to become a little distracted. That’s why we, as parents and teachers, need to step in and teach them to keep their focus on one thing at a time. A good idea is to teach a child to finish a project or, for instance, a specific online search before tackling a new task. To-do lists can also help your child keep their priorities organized. [3]

If we are completely honest, multi-tasking has become somewhat of a go-to approach in our busy world. It also affects our kids as they learn from the ways in which we do things. One of the best things you can do for your child is to show them how to get things done by remaining completely focused on one task at a time.

Take Breaks and Keep Nourished
Children can easily get stuck behind their laptops, tablets, or even smartphones for hours on end. They could end up getting so distracted that they forget to eat. When our bodies run low on fuel, we get drained and if your child navigates the online space on an empty tummy it can lead to trouble. [4]

Scheduled Time Online
As a parent or teacher, you might be familiar with the concept of teaching good values from an early age. The best possible scenario is teaching your child to schedule their online time. If they can manage to stick to only going online at planned times, they are much less likely to be draw into practicing unhealthy online behaviour.

Allow Your Youngster to Daydream
How many of our children still daydream? Sadly enough, daydreaming is something that seems to have been forgotten by so many. It’s a good idea to encourage daydreaming as even scientific studies show that interacting with your own thoughts can improve the working of the brain. [5]

Simpler Times may Hold the Answers to Modern Problems
Don’t you think it’s time to let our kids balance digital fun with some play-in-the-mud, run-around-on-the-playground fun? Remember when we were young? Though it may seem a little boring to them at first, your child will grow to love it.

You might be surprised at how your children respond to more conventional ways of having fun and gaining knowledge. The foundation they tend to lack from jumping over way too many hurdles to reach an ultimate goal might get better grounded. The result? A happier child who has a new-found appreciation for life with a new-found appreciation for different forms of playtime.

(This article is written by Mariska Ten Dam, content manager and writer specialising in health and wellness)

References:
1. Akin, L. (1998). Information Overload and Children: A Survey of Texas Elementary School Students. SLMQ Online: School Library Media Quarterly Online, 1, 11.
2. López Gamarra, M. E. (2018). Teaching mindfulness in the EFL classroom. The benefits of meditation and mindful breathing for adolescents.
3. Schrager, S., & Sadowski, E. (2016). Getting more done: strategies to increase scholarly productivity. Journal of graduate medical education, 8(1), 10-13.Ghk
4. Cryer, P. E., Fisher, J. N., & Shamoon, H. (1994). Hypoglycemia. Diabetes care, 17(7),734-755.
5. Naidu, I., Priya, A. J., & Devi, G. (2018). The hidden benefits of daydreaming. Drug Invention Today, 10(11).

Expert: Our kids are “doomscrolling”, and feeling the effects online

A global pandemic, lockdown, fluctuating COVID-19 cases, political corruption, and global instability that includes espionage by cell phone manufacturers and social media companies. The news is largely bad news.

“The trend of doomscrolling has never been higher than in 2020. The intersection of a health and financial crisis, the introspection of a lockdown, and increased screen time means that we have more access to local and international doom and gloom than ever before in history,” explains South Africa’s digital and social media expert, Dean McCoubrey from MySociaLife.

Can his claim be substantiated? If the pandemic had occurred a decade ago in 2010, the news surrounding the crisis would have been limited to just 2bn internet users. According to Statista, in 2020, there are now over 4.5bn users online with almost 4bn using social media and likely accessing news via the portable smart device in their bag or back pocket.

“When things go bad we can find out about it immediately due to social media feeds. They are spontaneous. Traditional news was never this quick. Moreover, the news that’s spreads online is not always factual,” he adds.

Despite some of the frightening and concerning things that are happening in the world, there are also many developments and reasons for positivity, especially being in the most advanced technology point in history. “Consider the development of the vaccine in which there are more than a few trials in advancing phases. If we saw a daily news report that opened on the latest development of the vaccine, would we see things slightly differently – with a little more hope?” he explains.

Negative news fuels fear and divisiveness as is now seen in politically unstable, or even apparently stable, countries like the United States.

“Consuming depressing or dramatic content affirms our belief that things are unsafe or dangerous. In one sense it makes us feel safe to confirm that the world is unsafe.”

McCoubrey questions if we didn’t consume as much negative media which include fake news, and are purposely driven to send more content of the same theme via its divisive algorithms, would we see people feeling less stress fear and anxiety?

“Would COVID-19 have been more manageable? (included space)Not less severe, but more manageable. Let me be clear that the news cycle has undoubtedly saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, but there is definitely the fallout of an infodemic. In schools, the number one lesson that our students asked for in our digital life orientation program last month – out of the eight modules which we offer – was mental health, and the second most requested lesson was tools to help focus. With teens having similar access to adults via social media their brains are not necessarily equipped to process or manage this flood of information, even if they appear technologically confident and competent.”

“Due to app penetration, hundreds of millions of teens are now their own media publishers on apps like TikTok, Instagram and Reels. Fake news posing as memes can just perpetuate, as many teens lack the critical thinking to ask enough questions about what is true or false, safe or dangerous. It’s all about understanding media and it’s influence – known as media literacy.”

Doomscrolling is the fuel that feeds the new ‘attention economy’. It keeps us coming back for more, either the need to feel safe or the need to be thrilled and be part of the conversation. That has always been the lure of news. But right now there’s more bad news, more introspection, and more access all rolled into one.

“Parents need to be conscious of what they are consuming, how their news consumption rubs off on their anxiety and how that impacts their kids. Teens openly share that it’s too much, and the adults need to play a larger role in the management of doom,” he continues.

Mccoubrey cites three important biases to consider when consuming the news:

  1. Negativity bias:This is where we focus on negative information, events or emotions more than their positive counterparts. This originally would have been used to keep us alert and therefore safe. But the same perils do not exist that used to hundreds of years ago. We are wired for caution more than may be required.
  1. Confirmation bias:If we have been exposed to a piece of information, often we can seekq to confirm that ‘fact’ by seeking supporting information, stories or data, despite conflicting stories which may not prove it to be conclusive.
  1. Availability bias: If we have been exposed to certain information or events, these are more ‘front and centre’ in our minds for a period of time, and we can overestimate their importance. They may have relevance, in some instances, but they could also be a snapshot of a moment in the news – and are not representative of the bigger picture in a country or city, for example.

“Yes, things are tough right now and there is no arguing they can be scary. But if we keep that flow of negative news coming in we will focus on that, and it’s hard to start seeing the positive aspects in every day. Ironically, that’s one way out. Take a break from the media and social media. You’ll be amazed by what happens, and it’s what the MySociaLife Program teaches teens and pre-teens in South African schools: how to navigate this complicated online landscape to be become safer, smarter and more savvy. This may be just as important as any other topic in school these days, given where we are headed in this decade,” McCoubrey concludes.

The one movie educators need to watch: The Social Dilemma

With 4.5bn online – and approximately 4bn of them on mobile devices – social media is now as commonplace as eating lunch. It is not an exaggeration to say that most people spend more time on social media than they do eating or bathing, or talking in person to other human beings.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – and COVID-19 – have dramatically accelerated the adoption of technologies and smart devices, but are we ploughing into the future as the untested guinea pigs of these technologies in a race to compete, or to be accepted socially?  


Netflix’s new smash hit documentary, The Social Dilemma, poses this question on the impact of social media, using the voices of a number of former senior-executives-turned-whistleblowers who reveal the true motivations of some of the most powerful companies on earth. The movie illustrates that society finds itself as the product in ‘the attention economy‘ – where time on-screen means competitive advantage to the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google (FAANG). The longer we stay on a single platform, the more data they collect, the more customized the ads are which can be served to you based upon your digital choices and preferences, and the higher the company value. The debate is whether we are all just “lab rats” in an egotistical and virtual ‘race to the pole’, or as Tristan Harris from the Centre for Humane Technologies puts it, “The race to the bottom of the brain stem”. Which social platform can gain a significant edge to amass the most data and retain marketshare, eyeballs and influence? 


That last word – influence – is, of course, the concern. Adults feel that they have the critical thinking skills to discern when they are being manipulated and ‘sold’ a dummy. For this reason, many may be entertained by the movie, even shocked, but little in their concrete daily patterns of behaviour may change. Getting this message into Generation Z, however, can shape the way they consume content, and give them the opportunity to get up to speed with the reality of social manipulation, at a critical formative junction. And they can establish an objective view of what social media really is – tech companies competing in the attention economy. That doesn’t mean they stop using it, it means they see it for what it is. As we say in schools, “we will help you to move from safer to smarter so you can explore and excel.” 


I have been following many of these speakers and other professors for the last few years – I communicate with some of them in the US via LinkedIn and email and they are often happy to help our education program here in South Africa. They were a significant reason why I decided to move from being a media agency owner to teach kids in schools about media literacy, online safety and their use of devices and social platforms. Parents work so hard to build a values system in the home, and schools seek to do similar. Parents want, and society desperately nneeds, our kids to have an informed and balanced world view, compassion, empathy, and the skills of critical thinking. While the internet exposes us to more, and educates us, an algorithm can swim upstream against these values, feeding us more and more information to keep us glued to our screens. When you add in the science of how the brain works and the dopamine that gets delivered to the pleasure centre in the brain when you get a like or succeed in a mission on a game, you can understand why devices are stuck into our palms, bags and back pockets. Before long we can believe what we are being fed, rather than contemplate it or challenge it. Virtual hamsters on a wheel.


MySociaLife deeply believes critical thinking, and the 8 digital soft skills that we teach in schools, will be the superpower combination to accompany technical ability, for Generation Z. The problem is that schools need a tech-savvy champion to bring a company like ours, MySociaLife, in to straddle the line of popular culture and important life skills and inspire their students to embrace technology safely and intelligently. Right now, there aren’t enough educators that can understand this massive landscape of digital identity, reputation management, privacy, security, sexuality online, critical thinking, mental health, compassion – and empathy and how this looks in an online context.

That’s what makes our program successful. Students find it relatable and they give us credit for it, saying that it impacts the way they view this digital world they operate in.

A suicide goes viral on social media: Suicide Prevention Day

Suicide goes viral on social media

Thursday, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) around the world, organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), and co-sponsor World Health Organisation (WHO).  

This year, however, we find ourselves within a different context, trying to emerge from various levels of lockdown and re-establish society and community in stabilising healthy daily activities. In schools, students have either been unable to enjoy the regular routine of attending class or, those with access to devices and data, have found themselves experiencing an increase of several hours a day of online learning. With increased screen times comes increased exposure and influence. A 33-year-old American man committed suicide on social media, and while platforms tried to contain the virality in recent days by blocking access to the video, platform users had repurposed the video in other formats and published into multiple channels, including teen app sensations, TikTok and Instagram. Schools in South Africa have issued warnings of the video to parents over the last few days.


A simple Google search shows the frequency of social media virality around suicide including hashtags that allow users to share their darkest fears and emotional turmoil publicly, with other users commenting. The obsessive usage of these platforms means that teens and pre-teens can be exposed to graphic, violent, or explicit sexual imagery, which disturbs some individuals and causes a response that may vary from anxiety to anger, to sadness, to shame. The most important revelation, according to Dean McCoubrey, the Founder of MySociaLife, the South African online safety and social media program operating in schools, is that “as many as a third of students will not discuss what they have seen or what troubles them online with their parents for fear of punishment or the removal of their device, which gives them access to entertainment, socialising, and games. This is echoed by a 2017 Vodafone survey in 13 countries, meaning that this is not exclusive to South Africa.” 


Suicide shouldn’t be a secret – people understandably think about it, especially if it is in the news or social media, without necessarily having the intent to act upon it. Often there is curiosity which opens up an opportunity to discuss or share helplines if students aren’t ready to talk to their parents for any reason. Suicide is often the result of enduring a longstanding illness, such as depression, and that if provided with the opportunity to get help, many people are able to recover from depression, and no longer have suicidal thoughts or desires. 


MySociaLife teaches thousands of students a year about online safety and social media and assumes “a rare vantage point because we teach eight lessons around digital life skills, and this creates a platform for many students to tell us about the reality of their life online”. This interaction allows the training program to track the latest apps, hoaxes, trends, language, and seeks to bridge the generational and technological divide that has arisen from a generation which received devices or social media access in the same decade as their parents. “This divide has made it difficult for adults. How can they grasp digital identity, privacy, latest apps, mental health, digital footprint, bullying, unless they work inside these moving currents on a daily basis? Parents, teachers, counsellors, and mental health professionals are struggling to understand the landscape and therefore the context of what is happening in teenager’s lives, or what to look out for. To make matters worse, these exposures can be kept largely hidden,” he adds. 


McCoubrey advises parents not to be fooled by the apparent confidence or ‘tech-savvy’ of a teen or pre-teen, given their emotional maturity, and offers six tips:

  1. Parents need to stay abreast of the trends and hoaxes online and either self educate on Google, or ask their school for expert training from educators like MySociaLife
  2. While many teens don’t enjoy probing questions, check-in on what’s interesting online – the highs and lows, or what’s being talked about – and monitor their reactions. But be conscious of your own anxiety rising and how you appear in this conversation.
  3. Provide the safety that their online concerns can be talked about, without taking the device away as punishment if they reveal something that is shocking to you. This may not be their fault that they witnessed something online
  4. Look for changes in their behaviour around sleep, mood, anxiety, their friend group, or school work
  5. Seek professional help as soon as possible, via your health care provider or professional suicide helplines, listed below
  6. Request schools to educate their staff around the latest viral dangers – given the time spent at school – to share the support function and education of students

“MySociaLife now teaches the child psychiatry units in hospitals, and speaks at GP conferences, because this is such a complicated world to understand that even medical practitioners need advice and insight to grasp the nuances within this technological landscape.” “In this instance, curiosity can get the better of kids. And all it takes is to scroll past these graphic visuals and watch something. And then it’s very difficult to get this out of the mind, which can lead to secrecy, shame, embarrassment, and fear. Our kids need non-judgmental support. We do need to accept that most parents have given these devices and data or WiFi connection and schools are using these for learning. Adults had not fully grasped the window into a vast world (of all ages) that it would provide, resulting in positive and negative outcomes.”  At MySociaLife, we have a simple motto, says McCoubrey, “Safer kids can be smarter, and then excel online. But they will need facilitators that are ‘on the pulse’, objective and highly experienced.”

The effects of social isolation during Lockdown on kids

Humans are social creatures. We take our cues from each other, and the environment around us. As we receive this information or stimulus, we process it and its contents are vital during childhood development. So what are the effects of social isolation during Lockdown on kids? What happens when (physical) social contact is dramatically reduced, as is the case during the COVID-19 pandemic?

(Some) adults will have developed a framework to manage and can source the tools to support themselves (exercise perhaps, or escapism, or communicating with others.) Children are not so fortunate. They depend on the connection, guidance, and support of those around them, which is why children that receive less support can suffer from more social, emotional, or educational challenges if they live in isolation. Loneliness has links to stress and poor mental health. Why? If the body’s stress response feels consistently under threat, it can be mentally and physically tiring, and perpetuate habitual loops – anxiety, being one example.

Lockdown has moved more of our ‘connection’ online. While that’s a ‘plus’ in many respects, there is something inside human physical contact that many of us overlook. There are dimensions of connection that the supercomputer of the brain reads – facial muscles, postures, gestures, and tonality to hear the words being spoken, or feel the story being shared, even if that’s conveyed with a look.

Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife which educates parents, students, and teachers about eight different aspects (lessons) of the complex aspects of lifeonline explains, “MySociaLife has consistently seen that time is a key factor in supporting children. Both p arents and students share this with us. Many adults (custodians) may need to slow down a little to hear them, to truly listen and pick up the cues, to ensure they feel supported and therefore reduce that stress. At the same time, that creates the space to educate them about your values or resilience, for example. They see you, hear you, and mirror you, based upon that important stream of content, as opposed to seeking it from friends or social media. Time is powerful.”

Friends, aunts, and uncles, or grandparents offer layers of support and influence, and these (hopefully positive) influences and networks help our kids grow, acting as the seeds which allow them to flourish. Make the connections as best you can with the time you have. It will pay dividends.

More wellbeing tips here on Parent24.

Too close to home?

Homeschooling became a hot topic in 2020. Some who would have formally never imagined it as an option now see its merits, simply due to the reality of being forced into it by COVID-19. The question frequently asked is, what are the pro and cons? And sadly that’s an incredibly difficult thing to answer.

As Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife, the 8-module Online Safety and Digital Life Orientation Program adopted by schools in South Africa explains, “The feedback from students who now find themselves being homeschooled is very mixed. One size does not fit all when it comes to kids and the households in which they live. There are different levels of attention that learners can access, different technologies, and different parents supporting them. Is homeschooling being driven by a parent (or homeschool teacher), or is it blended with online learning? In some cases, it could be largely online. There are myriad permutations here. Of the 4000 students, we teach – and we teach them 8 times in a year – the feedback is very diverse. Some are feeling anxious, while others are relishing this new approach to their education.”
 

The pros of homeschooling speak for themselves: Less time in traffic, you can customize your child’s learning tools, you can protect your child more from issues like racism or bullying, and you can accommodate special needs or learning requirements.

By contrast, according to neuroscientists and cognitive therapist, Dr. David Rosenstein that advises MySociaLife on the direction and tools used in the 8-lesson program, “There is a difference between peer group interaction and adult interaction – right now children don’t have children to play with and learning through play is huge. Also, peer interactions improve learning through peer modeling – for example, “hey if my friend can count to 100, then I can too…so I’ll learn to do that”. In addition, peer interactions are incredibly important learning that happens in that type of context and responds differently to adults than they do to peers. You relate to someone of your developmental age differently.”

Parents also have their own stresses and strains, and can potentially let their own fatigue or perspectives get in the way. “While homeschooling may suit some children in Lockdown, there have been many parents that have felt the pressure of juggling these complex tasks while trying to work, or manage other siblings,” explains McCoubrey.

He adds, “We have a lot of parents asking us for our parent presentation on how to manage their child’s increased life online. Homeschooling is powerful if you have time and energy, and can provide adequate support, blended with a dose of self-awareness and objectivity. We, at MySociaLife, know first-hand how it requires immense energy to hold the space, support teens and pre-teens, keep their motivation, stimulate them with tools that help them engage, and remember the information. In our Program, we use video, animations, discussions with others, workshops, gamification, and quizzes. Life online (social media or e-learning requires a map. Up until now, it’s not been attended to, which is why our program has been in such demand in schools. We don’t just teach students, we teach parents and teachers too. There are several groups here that want to do this better.”