Pre- teens & Teens Can’t Distinguish What’s real in the Digital World

According to a new report from UK telecoms watchdog Ofcom, most children can’t differentiate paid ads from real search results. The number of kids online over the past ten years has doubled, with most being unprepared to distinguish fact from fiction in this virtual world. While that may be alarming, is that this deflects attention away from and masks larger problems resulting from overuse of electronic media and mobile devices.

A high school teacher I know is not alone in complaining about 9th graders so fixated on their mobile devices that they can’t participate in lessons. Attempts by teachers to separate students from their devices leads to ugly confrontations. There is no doubt that the Internet, and all its gizmos, have been a boon to education and the advancement of knowledge, but the devotion to its by-products may obviate these advantages.

The fascination with media and new technology is nothing new, and is not limited to teens. In the mid 20th century, Marshall McCluhan famously lamented about television that ’’the medium is the message”. He meant, in so many words, that the style and flash of TV was obscuring the substance or message to be conveyed. All politicians, beginning with John F. Kennedy, have embraced the medium, to the point that today politicians are elevated for their rock star appeal, and style over their experience – their substance. In little over a decade, the digital revolution has achieved the status of worship and devotion that took television 50 years to reach.

While that might be the established norm for adults, it is a disturbing development for young people – our next generation, our future. So as not to overstate the gravity of the situation, we should remember that, as youngsters, TV ads were effective about convincing us about the veracity of its claims by dint of innovative technology and repetition, and the world didn’t end. But the planet in the 20th century was less complicated, its dangers less insidious, and parents arguably more involved with their children. In this hectic modern world, children are often left alone – literally with their own devices.

In the Ofcom study, only 16 percent of pre-teens were able to distinguish between paid advertisements and a standard search result. Adolescents aged 12-15 didn’t fare much better, as only 33 percent knew which search results were ads, and which were actual links. Sadly, this number was even lower for those in the 8-11 age bracket, where fewer than one in five could make the differentiation.Ofcom’s director of research, James Thickett said,

The Internet allows children to learn, discover different points of view and stay connected with family and friends, but these digital natives still need help to develop the know-how they need to navigate the online world.

The Internet is not going to change its tactics. Oh, it will continue to evolve and improve, but also thrive due to advertisers like Google. So it is incumbent on society, starting with parents and teachers, to steer students in the right way to use and interpret the knowledge they assimilate. Children today learn quickly and are no less perceptive than we at their age. Like all of us, they just need direction, because, like I said, the ads are not going away – they’re likely to proliferate.

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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