Can YouTube kids blossom into young digital citizens?

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By Toan Dang

In a world where microchips can be implanted into people’s bodies, where devices talk and by all appearances “think” on their own, and where almost all of our collective knowledge is available at the touch of a finger, it seems strange to chastise children over time spent on phones.

Instead, imagine if kids were using these technologies to build fulfilling friendships, create awe-inspiring art or even save lives. 

In Thailand, people spend more than one-third of their day online at an average of nine hours and 11 minutes. The worldwide daily average is six hours and 42 minutes per day (2018 figures). Our growing use of digital technology shows no sign of slowing, with 1 million new users coming online every day, according to We Are Social’s “Global Digital Report 2019”. 

As more parents raise kids with iPads and iPhones, it’s no surprise that children are among the fastest-growing group for internet use. In the latest UNESCO research, “Digital Kids Asia-Pacific: Insights into Children’s Digital Citizenship” (DKAP), which was launched this month, over 60 per cent of 15-year-olds surveyed were already spending more than three hours a day online, while about 8 per cent were online for more than seven hours daily. Most of this time was spent on socialising with friends or entertainment rather than for studying and learning.

The DKAP research was conducted with 5,129 students in Bangladesh, Fiji, South Korea and Vietnam. Later this year, the study will expand to Bhutan and five countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, where the Education Ministry will partner with Chulalongkorn University to conduct the research. 

The screen-time statistics should come as no surprise given that the largest and most popular Internet platforms are explicitly designed to consume our time and attention. Facebook, YouTube and Messenger, the top three-ranking platforms in terms of use, make more money the more time we spend on them. With watching streamed TV and videos being the most popular activities, kids are glued to their screens more than ever. 

So, how do we know that kids’ online activities are using technology productively? 

UNESCO study findings

The UNESCO study explored how children use digital technology to positively engage with the world around them. And the answer was clear: youth lack the skills to engage in civic society through digital means. Out of 16 competencies related to digital citizenship, civic engagement was the lowest scoring competency. Digital creativity and innovation, the abilities to express and explore through creating digital content, was also low among students in all the countries surveyed.

Meanwhile, the looming future of the digital economy, artificial intelligence and blockchain demands that children continue to adapt and learn new skills. With Thailand ranking first for mobile banking users, second for ownership of cryptocurrency, and third in mobile commerce, according to the Global Digital Report, kids today need to be equipped with the appropriate skills to navigate and thrive in this ever-changing digital landscape.

What children lack in these competencies can be made up for with education, but education systems needs to step up their game. There are still large gaps in Internet access, which is needed to give children the opportunity to develop their digital citizenship skills. A significant percentage of students surveyed still did not even have access to the internet at school. 

In fact, children without access to the internet in schools performed significantly worse than those with access. But that shouldn’t be a surprise. At the other end of the spectrum, “more developed” countries also have areas that need to be considered. Civic engagement and collaboration was low across all the surveyed countries, even in South Korea, the most mature country in terms of ICT development. 

Another trend is that children are no longer turning to the people we thought they would, such as parents and teachers. “The things I learned from school and my parents regarding ICT skills were about what devices are, but I could not apply that knowledge to my life,” said Thanchanok Koshpasharin, a member of the Youth Steering Committee with U-Report Thailand. “When I ask my parents ICT-related questions, it’s like we’re speaking different languages. They don’t even know what algorithms or fake news are … sometimes they are the ones sharing fake info in their LINE” app. 

Thanchanok took control of her own learning by starting a digital project with her friends in which she learned about the algorithms of platforms such as Facebook and Google. Because of that, she now feels more confident in her ability to defend against the dangers on the internet.

There are significant differences in the ICT use of children in different countries. Instead of projecting our fears about how we think children are behaving and should live with technology, we should seek to understand what their realities are. We tend to look for opinions from experts, educators and researchers. But the answers can come from many places – including simply by asking the children themselves.

Download the DKAP Research Toolkit.

Toan Dang is a consultant on ICT in education for the Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development at UNESCO Bangkok.

This article was initially published in The Nation Thailand.

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The Country Report of Viet Nam

Viet Nam was selected as one of the four countries (Viet Nam, Bangladesh, Fiji, and the Republic of Korea) to join DKAP project. The research team discovered the valuable findings to draw an initial big picture for Vietnamese policy makers, educators, and teachers about digital citizenship competencies of 15-year-old Vietnamese students.

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