Our youth need education in media ethics

13Aug11

Cartoon: © Malcolm Evans

Our youth need education not just in technology and media ethics, but in media and information literacy in general. They need to understand what both McLuhan and his friend Neil Postman insisted upon, that “technology giveth and technology taketh away: (Postman, Technopoly, 1993, p.5)…….AlexK

When Marshall McLuhan’s ground-breaking work in mass communication theory catapulted him into the spotlight more than 30 years ago, the internet and social media were faint blips on the world’s technological radar screen.

What many people do not know is that the late University of Toronto professor and Roman Catholic convert also referred to the electronic media as “an unholy imposter” and “a blatant manifestation of the anti-Christ.”

Did Apple and Research In Motion executives, when they released their innovative iPhone and Blackberry devices several decades later, have similar thoughts or glimpse the Pandora’s box that their own brave new gadgets might unleash?

The internet and wonderful digital devices that have helped connect and educate millions across the globe — that have shed light on and hastened the collapse of repressive regimes and accelerated humanitarian disaster relief efforts — have, unfortunately, also enabled the darker side of human nature.

The proliferation of pornographic images via the internet, mobile phone “sexting” and recent “flash mob and rob” phenomena remind us of McLuhan’s insight that as we shape our tools, our tools indeed shape us.

This is no less true when applied to the crudely-fashioned sticks and stones our ancestors crafted to carve letters and images into sand, wood and limestone or to the ubiquitous 21st-century communication devices that instantaneously broadcast our every word and deed for mass consumption on any number of popular social networking sites.

Recent evidence of humanity’s baser instincts is currently sweeping London, England, and playing out in the form of “flash, trash and loot” mobs. Using RIM’s BlackBerry device and the secure cover of its messenger application as their tools du jour some British youths are running amok. Organizing themselves into lethal terror units, they resemble the anarchic “droogs” in the futuristic Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange, smashing everything and anyone in their ruinous path.

The recent Vancouver riots also teach us how digital technology, in the form of popular social media sites like Facebook, can also expose individuals who post their latest exploits for all to see, including the police. Some resourceful youths have also promoted, locally, upcoming street fights of their peers on Facebook.

Make no mistake though; what we are witnessing today in the techno-have countries like England, Canada and the U.S. is more than the result of disaffected working-class youth, battered by unemployment and economic despair. Cyber-bullying by youth is also a growing and disturbing trend that cuts across cultural, racial and economic lines. At least one of the participants in the torching of a police vehicle during the Vancouver riots was identified as an elite athlete and Olympic hopeful with plans to attend university.

During the past decade our society has seen an explosion and proliferation of new forms of digital media. What is lacking in the technology-rich societies is a coherent strategy designed to educate youth from kindergarten on up to Grade 12 in the ethical and responsible use of the digital technologies.

Many of today’s youth are technologically savvy and deeply immersed in wildly popular social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter. But at the same time, and for a host of reasons, many are also missing out on opportunities to critically examine and assess the value, impact and potential opportunities for good that the new digital tools offer.

The astonishing pace of technological change continues to far outstrip our ability to deal with the collateral human fall out. Most school district officials, school administrators and teachers are already overwhelmed with ministry initiatives, reduced budgets, the prescribed curricula, and immediate daily needs of their students.

The reality is that many parents find it impossible to keep pace with the deluge of internet and computer-based technologies that land on the shelves of electronics stores on a weekly basis, let alone monitor the media habits of their children.

It would equally be unrealistic and unfair to ask teachers to instruct students in the very technologies that are often associated with the “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” headlines that dominate the daily news. Through sensational headlines and horrific stories, the technology is demonized. Sadly, the London riots become the “BlackBerry riots” and Facebook becomes, unfairly, synonymous with cyber-bullying and teen suicide.

Many school districts and pre-service education programs and instructors also lack the expertise and equipment required to adequately prepare future teachers on technology integration and its ethical and responsible use.

Unless there is a concerted effort by all educational stakeholders — ministry officials, faculties of education, school board officials, trustees, administrators, teachers and parents — to instruct youth in the ethical and responsible use of internet and computer-related technologies they will continue to drift aimlessly upon the whimsical and sometimes perilous currents of technological change.

Michael Redfearn is information technology consultant for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board.   http://tinyurl.com/3fcejht

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2 Responses to “Our youth need education in media ethics”

  1. This the-sky-is falling-article is just another version of the today’s youth is going to the dogs cliché. Throughout history every new discovery, idea, or invention has had its critics, people who said that this discovery, idea, or invention will corrupt youth and ruin life as we know it.

    It is ironic that “Michael Redfearn is information technology consultant for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board,”,a board that maintains that its primary allegiance is to the Roman Catholic Church. Redfearn uses appeal to authority to assert that the Internet is dangerous: Marshall McLuhan “the late University of Toronto professor and Roman Catholic convert also referred to the electronic media as ‘an unholy imposter’ and ‘a blatant manifestation of the anti-Christ.'”

    Whatever dangers the Internet poses, the advantages outweigh the dangers. The Internet has made it possible to expose the RCC as “an unholy imposter” that protected and lied about abusive priests. A perfect example is the case of a Catholic priest and former bishop who used technology and the Internet to indulge his perversions and was caught, charged and waits to be sentenced because the very technology he used made his arrest possible.

    It isn’t just “our youth” who “need education in media ethics”; educators and people in authority need an education in ethics before they can begin to teach ethical behaviour to today’s youth.

    • Veronica, I agree with you. Every generation seems to think that the preceeding one is going to hell, often because of the media it embraces. When I was an undergrad the threat was from “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll”. But society survived. Still, I think we need to adopt a critical stance towards technology and recognize Neil Postman’s admonition that “technology giveth and technology taketh away” (Technopoly, 1992, p. 5). Though I wouldn’t give up the Internet for anything, I think its dark side and dangers need to be recognized, which is why media literacy is so critical….AlexK


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