MySociaLife

Critical Thinking

What the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard Trial Can Teach Us About Fake News and the Media

– Written by Havana Dauncey.


Have your social media feeds been flooded with replays and parodies of the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial for the last 2 months? Or has your newsfeed been overflowing with all the expert opinions and juicy insider details? Well, with it being the largest celebrity trial since OJ Simpson, it’s been pretty impossible to miss, whether you wanted to or not.

With almost 84k hours of the trial watched on YouTube, this cultural phenomenon has taken the world by storm, completely overwhelming arguably much more important issues, such as the Ukraine war.

While we aren’t particularly concerned with the details and outcome of the trial, what has captured our attention is rather the rabid response of the media to the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial. More importantly, we’re interested in what this case can teach us and our children about the relationship between fake news and the media — an essential lesson for any teen and pre-teen online.

So let’s dive in and see what we can uncover!

The role of the media in the trial

While the media’s role in the jury’s decision is still debated, its role in the public view of the trial is undeniable. Like the viewers, the media chose sides and crafted their narratives to suit their side, often resorting to fake news and misinformation. The lines were quite clear: 

  • Social media and the general public tended towards team Johnny
  • Reputable news sources and published professionals leaned towards team Amber

There was not much room to sit in the middle. And it was particularly fascinating to see the tools used in the media to fight for each side. 

For example, hashtags played a large role. The hashtag #JusticeForJohnnyDepp amassed over 21 billion views on TikTok, while #JusticeForAmberHeard only gained just over 100 million. Other hashtags like #AmberHeardIsAPsychopath and #JusticeForAllWomen were also used by respective sides to fight their battle.

Another big propagator on social media was the use of memes, TikTok trends, and parodies. It was mostly targeted against Amber Heard, with re-enactments mocking her testimony, rhyming parodies of her words, and body language ‘experts’ sharing their ‘qualified’ opinion on whether Amber was lying or not. Even Saturday Night Live had a go at it.

But where Amber Heard was villainized on social media, Johnny Depp was deemed a hero. When Amber smirked, it was sarcastic and cruel, but when Johnny did the same, it was deemed witty and light-hearted. Social media focused on his child-like sweet tooth and innocent doodles but saw Amber furiously ‘pretending’ to write notes. Amber’s team of lawyers was mocked for every slip-up while Johnny’s team was celebrated for every small victory. The bias of social media was very clearly in Johnny’s favor.

However, you could say the opposite for published articles from reputable news sources in which the majority took the politically correct route of siding with Amber in the wake of the MeToo movement. Many saw this trial as representing the entire MeToo movement, rather than looking at the unique and individual context of the trial. Shocking clickbait headlines related to the trial were used to draw in readers and boost numbers.

Even more, this trial saw political groups taking advantage of the media coverage to push their agenda and gain attention from the masses by spreading fake news and misinformation.

For example, according to VICE, the Daily Wire, a notoriously conservative website founded by Ben Shapiro, spent tens of thousands of dollars on biased anti-Amber promotions on Instagram and Facebook. Additionally, members of both the feminist movement and men’s rights movement also took advantage of this trial to justify their opposing causes. This throws political propaganda into the mix as well.

What does this mean for the everyday person?

It means that people’s opinions and even what they believed as fact were heavily dependent on where they got their news and which media they were exposed to.

This trial showed that rational-thinking adults could be easily manipulated to believe fake news — now imagine the effect of social media and other instances of media manipulation on young teens and children who are yet to learn how to distinguish between fact and fantasy.

In short, there didn’t seem to be much objectivity and sound evidence in the media surrounding the trial, holding both sides with equal weight and critically assessing both arguments. This resulted in an overwhelming amount of examples of fake news and misinformation.

Examples of fake news from the trial

Instances of fake news surrounding the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial ranged from baseless claims to outright absurdities. You’ll find that the common denominator is a lack of sound evidence.

Here are some examples of actual stories from both social media and the news that made headlines during the trial and why we consider them fake news:

  • A video circulated on TikTok of a woman at Johnny Depp’s Lone Ranger movie premiere in 2013 who looked like Amber Heard’s lawyer, Elaine Bredehoft, claiming she took the job of Amber’s lawyer to be close to Johnny because she was a fan.
    • Despite getting over 11 million views on TikTok, there’s no evidence that the woman in the video is Elaine Bredehoft, nor is it clear that they even look alike with the poor quality of the video.
  • Another video on Youtube was posted claiming that Amber Heard’s other lawyer, Benjamin Rottenborn quit mid-trial, fuelling headlines.
    • There was no evidence of this claim, the video didn’t even try to support the claim, and Benjamin Rottenborn remained in court for the entire trial.
  • Social media users claimed that Amber Heard was copying Johnny Depp’s court outfits to troll and play mind games with him.
    • There’s no evidence for the claim, nor is it possible to assume Amber’s intention for her outfit choices.
  • A video circulated on TikTok claiming that Amber Heard posed for a photo while blowing her nose during her testimony.
    • There’s no evidence of any photo being taken, and by watching the video, it’s clear that while blowing her nose, the screen in front of her lit up with an image, appearing as a ‘flash’, causing her to pause and look at the screen.
  • Another rumor on social media claimed that Amber Heard stole lines from the movie, The Talented Mr. Ripley, during her testimony.
    • There’s no evidence of this, and if you compare the two videos, it’s clear that Amber did not say the lines word for word, as the rumor claimed.
  • TikTok users speculated on romance rumors between Johnny Depp and his lawyer, Camille Vasquez.
    • There was no evidence of this claim, and Camille has since debunked the rumors.
  • Post-trial, clickbait headlines claimed that Johnny Depp branded his daughter, Lily-Rose Depp, as cunning and seemingly called her out for her silence during the trial through his latest artwork.
    • Only if you read to the bottom of the article, do you see that this is not the case at all.

These are just a fraction of the endless rumors that caught wind during and after the trial. As you can see, with just a bit of critical thinking, some search for sound evidence, and checking of sources, these rumors are easily debunked.

What we can learn about fake news

So with all that being said, how does this relate to our children’s experience online and what can we learn about fake news?

Well, it appears that facts have become opinions and opinions have become facts. This completely blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not, making it incredibly difficult for both teens and adults to discern the truth online.

This trial was also another example of how people online will spread disinformation to gain media attention. Users of social media, YouTube, and Twitch noticed the attention that anti-Amber content received and jumped on the bandwagon. Even news articles found ways to capitalize on the attention with clickbait headlines. This shows how some people online will come up with an outrageous claim with little evidence and regard for the consequences of their claim all to gain likes and grow their accounts. It can be very easy for followers and fans of these accounts to believe these stories, especially teens who may look up to them.

This trial also highlighted a prevalent cause of fake news — confirmation bias. This is when people take in content or evidence and spin it to support their bias, belief, or agenda. Confirmation bias was littered across social media and the news throughout the trial, coming from both sides. It shows that unless you critically assess the motivations and arguments of a source, it’s very easy to be manipulated by the stories that fall into the confirmation bias trap.

Lastly, and most heartbreakingly, the fake news and trial by social media had a dehumanizing effect that promoted a lack of empathy among users online. Despite the trial surrounding very serious, emotional, and personal topics such as domestic violence and abuse, many users saw the people in this trial as objects they could mock and use for entertainment and personal gain, disregarding the human beings and their lives that they might be destroying. This lack of empathy can spread almost as fast as the rumors and embed itself in the young minds of social media users.

How can we use this trial to teach children about the dangers of fake news?

It’s clear that, if left unchecked, fake news and disinformation can be incredibly harmful to not only the people involved but to our children’s ideas and attitudes about the world. So how can we empower them to not be manipulated by fake news and the media?

Here are some things you can do:

  • Show them how to check their sources and their sources’ sources.
  • Teach them how to tell the difference between trustworthy, reputable sources and sources, like social media, where anyone can post anything regardless of its validity.
  • Teach them critical thinking skills so that they can discern fact from falsehood by themselves.
  • Teach them about confirmation bias and how it appears in the media.
  • Show them how to report misinformation on social media and how to avoid spreading misinformation online.
  • Remind them that the people mocked online are still human beings and should be respected.

While the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial brought out the worst of the media, hopefully, we can still take something positive from it. We can use it as a reminder to make our children aware of the fake news and misinformation floating around social media and the news. We can also use it as a learning tool to teach them the skills to overcome fake news so that they can be safer and smarter online

With the potential of an appeal, both this trial and the fight against fake news are far from over. So let’s keep fighting for our children’s safety online — click here to find out more about digital safety for teens and pre-teens.

Social Media Filters: A Cause of Body Dysmorphia or Just A Form of Creative Expression?

Article by Havana Dauncey.

Have you taken a selfie lately and been compelled to swipe through the filters to find the perfect one that gives you that extra glow?

Well, it’s safe to say that filters have revolutionalized the selfie game. In fact, 87% of teens aged 13-21 use a filter on social media

So what’s drawing teens so strongly to alter their images online? What does this mean for teens of today and their mental health? And are all filters bad, or is there another side that we’re not seeing?

Let’s break down everything you need to know about social media filters.

What is a social media filter?

Social media filter (n.): An in-camera photo editing effect that can be applied to images before or after the photo is shot, found on each social media app and sometimes referred to as augmented reality (AR).

Filters began long before social media. Remember the front camera mirror and distorting effect that captivated young teens back in 2012? Well, these harmless editing effects have evolved into something a lot bigger, and potentially dangerous, thanks to the birth of social media.

Selfie filters, the social media filters we’re referring to, first came to light on Snapchat in 2015 as one of the main unique features drawing users to the platform. But what started as innocent doggy ears and stuck-out tongues has now evolved into a sophisticated AI that’s made it impossible to discern what’s real and what’s not — in the form of the infamous ‘beauty filters’.

Nearly 1 in 5 teens use a beauty filter on every post. Beauty filters are specifically designed to add make-up, remove blemishes, and change facial features to make you look more ‘beautiful,’ often appealing more to girls than boys. 

Why are teens drawn to use social media filters?

Phones have become the new mirrors. We no longer reach into purses to pull out a compact to check our faces or touch up some make-up. We now go straight for the selfie camera on our phones. But selfies have become more than just a convenient mirror in our pockets. They’ve become a figurative mirror that teens use as a representation of who they are, both externally and internally, attaching their identity to the frozen image of themselves on a screen.

Teens are at the stage in their development where they’re searching for their place in society, trying on different identities to see which one fits best and which one gets the best response. Taking and posting selfies online has become the new way for teens to share their identity with the world and measure the response they get from their peers.

Thus, teens are drawn to selfies with the hopes of gaining reassurance of who they are in the form of positive attention from others. This is where filters come in. Like trying on different identities, teens try on different filters to see which ones receive the best response.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say a young teen posts an unfiltered selfie on her Instagram story and doesn’t get the enthusiastic response of likes and DMs from her peers that she was hoping for. She swipes right to the story feature and starts curiously scrolling through the wide range of filters. She stops on one that softens her pores, hides her acne, flushes her cheeks and lips, and slightly enlarges her eyes with a touch of mascara. Now, it looks so real, and she looks almost like the famous models she follows on Instagram. So she posts the new selfie. Suddenly, her Instagram blows up with likes, heart emojis, and comments like “hot,” and “gorgeous,” from girls and boys alike. Her heart flutters from the attention, instantly deleting the old one, and staring at the new version of herself with a proud smile.

This is a simplified story of the spark that ignites teens’ drive towards using filters. When their self-esteem is low and they need a bit of reassurance, they learn that they get the best response and the most attention from altering their appearance to match society’s standards of beauty. And beauty filters conveniently give them the power to do it.

So while AR is just a nickname these filters have picked up, there’s a bit more truth in it than you may think. It’s not just the reality of the screen these filters are augmenting, but the reality for the teens outside the screen as well.

What do filters mean to the teens of today?

You might be wondering, “Editing photos isn’t anything new. The media has been altering bodies with photoshop to match unrealistic beauty standards for decades. What makes this so different?”

Well, thanks to social media filters, we no longer only compare ourselves to a doctored image of a stranger in a magazine but to doctored images of ourselves. Teens look at these filtered images of themselves and see a superior version, reinforced by the approval of their peers and society.

So in an effort to find their identities and get closer to their real selves, social media filters have the completely opposite effect — teens dissociate from their identities by idealizing a version of themselves that isn’t real.

The big question to ask here in terms of beauty filters is — who is setting these ideal beauty standards?

Well, the honest truth is that beauty standards have always been modelled after the white, western, and eurocentric aesthetic. And this is no different for the parameters of the beauty filters. While you may think that the AI used to define these filters is objective and unbiased, it’s simply not true. The biases and preferences of the people who programmed them are inevitably going to creep in, including racism, sexism, and implicit biases.

So what does this mean for diversity? It means that most filters automatically lighten the skin, eyes, and hair, distorting their facial features into something foreign. It means that teenagers that don’t match this narrow, hegemonic idea of beauty are subconsciously told they’re not beautiful based purely on their ethnicity.

Additionally, the ways in which these filters distort the face, positioning it into the ‘golden ratio,’ enlarging the eyes, shrinking the nose, and removing every blemish and freckle, are physically impossible. It sets a standard so high that no one can reach it no matter how hard they try, and some die trying.

61% of teens say that using beauty filters make them feel worse about their appearance in real life, stating that there’s a correlation between these filter and power body image. So it’s clear that social media beauty filters not only tell teenagers that they aren’t beautiful enough, but they also give them a biased, unrealistic, and impossible version of themselves — a constant comparison and reminder that they aren’t enough the way that they are.

The impact on teens’ mental health

Mix the teenage desire for public approval of their appearance with insanely real ‘beauty’ filters that turn your face into the golden ratio, and you get the perfect storm for body image issues and body dysmorphia to brew.

Body dysmorphia disorder (n.): characterized by the constant worrying about one’s physical appearance, often fixating on physical flaws or perceived defects.

These social media filters not only distort the image on the screen but the teenager’s body image of themselves. They notice how different they are from the filtered version of themselves and start to fixate on those differences, perceiving themselves as inferior.

So when teens look in the mirror, or their selfie cameras, they no longer see what they are but rather what they are not. Teens become susceptible to body dysmorphia and other body image issues. This pushes teens towards trying to change their real appearance to match the one on the screen, leading to unhealthy ‘beauty hacks,’ dieting, and even cosmetic surgery.

Are all filters that bad?

Filters come in all shapes and sizes, and maybe not all of them have to be a concern for your teens’ mental health. In fact, most filters out there don’t care about making you look beautiful, they aim to make you look silly, funny, and ridiculous in the best way. These reignite that innocent fun and creativity that filters were originally designed for.

Some examples of creative filters include baby filters, beard filters, gender swaps, character-based filters, and an infinite amount more. There’s even a filter that distorts your facial features to make them look unappealing, shrinking your eyes and changing your proportions so that when you turn the filter off, you feel better about your actual appearance.

Just take a look at TikTok — many TikTok trends, aimed to earn some laughs from viewers, are centred around bizarre and goofy filters paired with some really clever jokes.

These filters often encourage teens to stop seeing their selfies as a reflection of their identity, as the filters are often so ridiculous, it’s impossible to connect the selfies to themselves in any meaningful way. It helps them take themselves less seriously and be okay with looking silly.

With the advanced technology and AI of today, you can pretty much do anything you want with filters, giving teens unlimited creative power that shouldn’t be tainted by the negative effects of beauty filters.

So what’s the final verdict on social media filters?

Filter — on or off?

Social media filters cover a wide range of editing effects, making it difficult to put them all in one box. Most filters can be used as a form of creative expression and for fits of laughter between friend groups, encouraging teens to not take themselves and their external appearance too seriously.

However, we can’t say the same for beauty filters. Beauty filters aren’t inherently bad; it’s all in the intention with which they’re used. However, most of the time, they attract vulnerable teens looking to bolster their self-esteem with a filtered facade, damaging their mental health by making them susceptible to body image issues and body dysmorphia. So it’s best to make sure these filters stay turned off.

What we can do moving forward

Knowing the harm these beauty filters can cause, it’s our responsibility as parents, teachers, and guardians to take the power out of the beauty filters and put it back into the hands of our children.

You can do this by:

  • Being aware of the filters teens are using and why.
  • Talking to them about the effects of the filters, the importance of establishing their identity separate from selfies, and the reality and relativity of ideal beauty standards.
  • Encouraging your children, as well as influencers, to go unfiltered, highlighting the beauty of authenticity.
  • Looking out for the signs of a struggling mental health and body image, ready to give them all the help if needed.
  • Showing your children how to be active consumers by telling the social media platforms what they need to do to help minimize the negative effects of their filters.

If we teach our children how to use filters responsibly, filters can once again be those fun and harmless effects that compel teens to spend hours laughing at their faces wave up and down the screen. So let’s turn off our filters and sit down with our children to have those unfiltered, authentic, and crucial conversations to help our children be safer and excel online.

Click here to find out more about how to learn more about the digital world and how to empower your children online.

TODAY, World Youth Skills Day: Unemployment driving unrest in South Africa

Is there a way we can reverse youth unemployment in this country? 

In the midst of South Africa’s deep unrest, 15th July is World Youth Skills Day. Tragically, the country’s youth unemployment rate reached a new record of 32.6%, the highest since the quarterly labour force survey began in 2008, totalling 7.242 million people out of work.
Employment lies at the centre of many socio-economic ills, given its capacity to fill time, provide purpose, generate income and drive greater equality. But employment can only be driven by skills training.  

Africa is burdened with an additional challenge: many struggle with literacy, due to the poor delivery of basic education. So, where might hope and inspiration be found in the next decade? In our pockets.

Smart device costs continue to come down, and new manufacturers are bringing in devices at lower costs, as well as data prices slowly dropping, meaning increasing access as we move through this decade, and more opportunity to upskill via online learning on a phone, with a growing resource of training platforms which offers free training programs like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity and Khan Academy.
But, explains Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife, South Africa’s leading digital education and media literacy program, “There are many promises various governments have made about their promise of leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), but how many understand the foundational digital skills required? You can’t just jump into robotics or coding, you need to understand what it is to be a digital citizen to embrace the free resources of the internet. Without it, you are driving a vehicle without a licence, or a map. How do you explore and grow safely?”

McCoubrey explains that the foundation is required in the same way previous generations were taught at length to hold a pencil and use those words they create more wisely. By contrast, increasingly, the internet is seeing spikes of misinformation and cyberbullying.

“With the basics in place of media literacy – understanding media, its power and influences, and fake news – as well as digital literacy such as privacy, cybersecurity and handling technology carefully, we can shift gear into exploration and expansion. We can find avenues of income. MySociaLife shows teens where they can learn photography for free, for example, and then show them where to sell their photos or videos,” adds McCoubrey.

Teens and pre-teens use the apps and devices so intuitively, and it’s a huge advantage. Some children are poor in school but brilliant online, which means there could be an alternative for young South Africans that could transcend the lack of quality basic education.

“We stand at a doorway to vault over other African countries, but we need guidance to know which keys will open it and prepare Generation Z for a 4IR future. We need to focus on basic digital education as well before it’s too late and we miss a glaring opportunity.”

Looking at TikTok and other social media and gaming platforms, popular culture has youth fascinated and motivated, with approximately 60% of its 1bn users globally found in the GenZ age range. We already sing, dance, shoot videos and photos, why not build on this, and start to use these skills? What if we taught them how to do it safely, intelligently and with purpose. Minecraft For Education, for example, is a way to game and code at the same time, learning a new “language”.

MySociaLife approaches the challenge by not only teaching kids foundational digital skills but also their teachers and parents on how to direct youth to opportunities and realise potential, while at the same time ensuring online safety too – “two sides of the same coin.” A South African EdTech training platform, it allows schools to simply log in and learn using eight hours of video training for learners aged 8 to 18 including subjects such as online safety, privacy, cybersecurity, digital footprint, bullying and intimidation, fake news, and ways to build skills and generate income online.

The World Economic Forum listed its top 10 skills for “The Future of Work in 2025” and these included technology monitoring, use and control, and also technology design and programming, critical thinking, social influence, reasoning and stress tolerance. “We teach many of these skills to kids in schools and they respond with such energy and enthusiasm. It’s something that ignites them.”“On World Youth Skills Day, this is a call to the government to understand both the challenges and the opportunities of media and digital literacy – and to accept how much they need to quickly grasp with regard to evolving popular culture, pre-teen and teen usage of devices simply because of the generational divide and technology divide. It could deliver a huge shift in employment, direction and momentum over time. We are completely missing this right now,” says McCoubrey.


“Even kids that are literate and have unlimited access are not fully utilising their devices and media platforms to their full potential. The outcome of digital citizenship is a more aware and responsible society because it reduces the negativity and polarity online, increases people’s ability to choose their next action, embracing the net for what it can offer – to share, to inform, to educate, to deliver income, to support, and much more. It’s apparent we would greatly benefit from this right now,” he concludes.

About MySociaLife

  • Schools can purchase the course and “login and learn” – using lesson plans, tips and tools and an assessment, with over 8 hours of training
  • Parents can access a 90-minute training to navigate their child’s online landscape
  • Teachers can access a 75-minute training to guide their students

Delivering an 8-module ‘Digital Citizenship Curriculum’, via webinar or Learning Management System, to Grade 4 to 11 learners in South African Schools, MySociaLife is the leading Digital Life Skills Program in the country. The Program has unmatched efficacy (data) with regards to student impact and behavioural change from the extensive modules which include: critical thinking, cyberbullying and empathy, sexuality online, a digital values system, privacy and security, mental health and resilience, and screen time addiction. End goal? Safer, smarter kids online – who will be able to explore and excel way beyond their peers as we slipstream into the highly competitive and demanding Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

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.

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.

How do SA kids see #Coronavirus in a TikTok and Instagram-based world?

And how can parents guide and support them? SA’s Digital Life Skills experts offer 7 key tips for parents.

As Covid-19 has exploded from a distant reality in South Africa to a global pandemic, with increasing local cases of the virus, we can count ourselves lucky to have almost instant access to information, education and updates on the status of the disease. However, the sheer volume of information – fact-based or hysteria-driven – can be overwhelming, even for adults. What does this information and the adults’ concern look like to our kids, and how are they consuming information on apps like TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat?

Right now adults and kids need to think Critically.

SA’s leading digital life skills expert, Dean McCoubrey, whose company MySociaLife teaches an 8-module social media program in SA schools, explains that the skill of critical thinking – the ability to question what may be true or false, safe or dangerous, right or wrong – is a key life skill in an explosive world of self-publishing, fake news, and cyberbullying. Consider how much time some teens (and even pre-teens spend online), what is interpreted and then discussed at school, irrespective of whether it may be fake news. Early cases of the virus have seen online hate and memes on some apps towards those with the virus.

Children and teens need to be guided about how to choose what content they consume about the disease, in addition to ongoing engagement with the adults they trust. Schools and parents often overlook the source of their children’s news. “We’ve got more access to information about Covid-19 thanks to the internet and social media than we’ve had for any other global epidemics such as SARSMERS and the various Ebola outbreaks, which is helping to manage and treat it,” MCoubrey says.

“The challenge with social media is that it can magnify our herd mentality. And anyone and everyone can publish information which may not be true or negative in a bid to get traction. In the middle of this are our children, who have yet to develop the ability to discern fake news from important facts, and can become overwhelmed or anxious if they are exposed to the wrong information.”

There are a number of steps that parents can take to reassure children, discuss the implications of the disease, and equip them to self-manage their access to information. These include:

  1. Equip yourself with information from trusted resources, like UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, the US Centre for Disease Control, and the South African Department of Health. Explain that many other sources are less reliable, and check the date of articles and authors – are they credible, or do the headline and image look like fear-mongering ‘clickbait’?
  2. Keep calm where possible, because children pick up on their parents’ emotions and are more likely to panic if their parents are doing so.
  3. Ask your children what they’ve heard about Covid-19, and answer as many of their questions in age-appropriate ways as you can. If you don’t know the answer to a question, use the opportunity to research it on trusted resources together.
  4. Co-create a plan of action – it helps them feel like they’re in control. Teach them the steps that they can take to protect themselves and others, including washing hands frequently with soap or an alcohol-based hand-rub, covering their mouth when sneezing or coughing, or doing so into the elbow, avoiding sick people, and alerting adults if they feel sick so that medical attention can be sought.
  5. Share the facts to help them gain an understanding of the role that they play in society. For example, research shows that very few children get really sick or die from the virus, which may make children feel invincible. However, remind them that they can carry the virus and share it people who are vulnerable, like their grandparents.
  6. Talk about the social implications of the disease, and remind children that the disease doesn’t care what the people it infects look like – and that there’s no basis for stigmatizing any population group because of the disease. Remind them that everybody looking out for one another and working together is how diseases like Covid-19 are overcome.
  7. Keep the conversation going – Covid-19 is here for a while, so consistency is essential. Challenges provide opportunities to educate so do some online research on resources that you’ve identified as trustworthy, and discuss developments regularly and openly.

“Because we teach eight hours of life online to thousands of kids every year, we are closer to understanding how teens and tweens consume content online, interpret what they see and read, and how it impacts them (both positively and negatively).”

MySociaLife’s ‘Digital Life Skills Program’ equips children with the skills they need to be responsible digital citizens, able to discern fake news from real, explains the effect of cyberbullying, shows how to protect privacy and reputation online, and how our mind and body reacts to what we see which can cause mental health issues,” says McCoubrey.

“As devices become increasingly ubiquitous, the issue is becoming less about policing children’s screen time or access to digital content, because they’ll find a way to get online – it’s more about equipping them to think critically about the information they read so that they can participate actively in their media consumption, rather than accepting everything that they read as the truth,” he adds. “Once they have that distance to question what happens online, we can teach them about other key topics like respect, empathy, resilience and responsible publishing. In one sense they need a digital values system to call on, but you can’t find that in a curriculum here in our country. That’s why we developed our own working with a global entity, resulting in eight 60-minute sessions to unpack it carefully. Schools need help. And so do many parents – it’s a complex world out there.”

The smartphone agreement. One-size-does-not-fit-all.

Download our smartphone agreement and tips here.

There’s something we so often miss when we decide to tackle the online issue with our kids. We listen to the media or industry specialists, and we apply their broad brush stroke rules to our own child. And yet every child is so phenomenally different. And so are every family’s values.

Step 1: Observe your kids and discuss with your partners (if possible) how concerned you actually are, how attached your son or daughter is to their device, what type of media they are consuming. Author Adam Alter explains that we can largely deduce if there is indeed a problem when we see a negative change in behaviour – for example, relationships, personality or normal ‘output’ (whatever that may be for them – across school work, energy, mood).

Step 2: We may have to open up to the notion that our kids can also fake it – fearful of being forced to drop habits, behaviours, or relationships, which they wish to hold on to. In addition, one of a teen’s or tween’s greatest fears is having their phone taken away which is one reason why an approximate 40% of teenagers (a Vodafone survey in 13 countries) don’t tell parents or guardians about the problems they experience online, a statistic we have seen in our education program in schools.

Step 3: Sit down and talk with your teen or tween and establish the house rules online – when and how much time, which apps are acceptable and which behaviours cannot be tolerated. But if you have a budding entrepreneur, a genius coder, or promising drone pilot, and he/she wishes to pursue a career in technology, does that allow for any flexibility? You’ll have to factor in how conservative or liberal you are in your household – one house is more lenient than another, after all. Here is the agreement.

Step 4: It’s ok for us to re-establish the rules as long as we do it fairly and clearly, and hold ourselves to the same principles. Kids frequently comment about how their parents have poor self-awareness skills around their own obsessive phone use.

Step 6: Think very carefully on these, don’t rush it because once you’ve created this together, you’ll need to uphold it … until its time for a review.

Step 7: Maybe go slowly at first, try not to be extreme – trust is the key – and every now and then it’s ok to relax a little every now and then, explaining that they’ve earned it as part of the reward.

Download our smartphone agreement and tips here.

Why our kids need media literacy

Reading and writing used to be enough on World Literacy Day, but now being able to filter what we read is an essential part of our children’s development.

It’s World Literacy Day on 8 September 2019 – a day set aside by the United Nations to celebrate literacy and to reflect on the world’s remaining literacy challenges. The foundations of this are the original three ‘Rs’- reading, writing and arithmetic, but the ubiquity of smartphones, fake news and social media has created the need for an additional basic skill: media literacy.

“Connected kids are relentlessly targeted by big tech and media companies, gaming houses, video content and other content that’s way beyond their years – all created and promoted by people they’ve never met and have no reason to trust,” says Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife, which supports parents, teachers and psychologists to help children feel safer and behave smarter online.

“Furthermore, this is all happening at a time when tweens and teens are in crucial stages of their emotional and intellectual development, underpinned by an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, raging hormones, and the very typical teenage need of being desperate to fit in and belong,” he says.

McCoubrey adds that the various massive media corporations have created algorithms that ensure that users are the editors of the content they receive. That’s not the positive outcome that it may seem at first: users unconsciously select the content that re-confirms their bias too, limiting and narrowing their view of the world.

And, in an era where social media has overtaken traditional mediums of news consumption, teens are getting their news from social media platforms rather than formal news organisations, with few means to discriminated fake news from real.

 “This is why media literacy education is such an essential part of tween and teenage education, giving kids the tools, habits and skills of expression that they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators, and active citizens in today’s world – all skills that certainly can’t be shared via a YouTube video!” McCoubrey continues.

Media literacy is the ability to access, analyse, evaluate, create, and act, using all forms of communication. It also promotes an awareness of media intention and influence, and teaches people how to take an active and considered approach to how they create and consume media, by providing a framework to access, analyse, and evaluate messages, whether in print, online, or in broadcast media.

While stats for South Africa are sketchy, Americans are exposed to as many as 10,000 adverts per day, and it’s realistic to say that online South Africans are not far behind. These are the ads that are telling teens how thin or ‘buff’ they should be, what they should eat and drink, what’s cool or uncool, and what they should be thinking, wearing and doing.

It’s true that parents can’t be around at every minute of the day to help children assess each message critically. Indeed, that’s completely unrealistic simply a bad idea, as they’ll never learn the skills that they need to be good digital (and IRL) citizens if they’re not equipped with the tools they need to navigate their way through the media landscape themselves.

It’s time to commemorate World Literacy Day 2019 by equipping children to be critical of what media they consume so that they can control their interpretation of what they see and hear, rather than letting media control them.