Digital literacy crucial in COVID-19 pandemic

BY: Stephen Tindi

Human dependence on digital media technologies has increased significantly as people try to observe social distancing protocols to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

Digital media technologies such as smartphones, computers and the Internet have become indispensable for work, education, entertainment and social connection in this period.

Digital literacy, thus becomes imperative for all media users.

Keeping physical/social distance and staying at home, even for months, is a small price to pay compared to the devastation of COVID-19 infections nationwide.

In observing these protocols, people have no choice than to rely on digital media technologies to perform daily functions. The mass media, especially the digital media have become the only connection between students and their teachers, pastors and congregants and even, in some cases, between parents and their children.

Digital media

Human interaction has come a long way from the use of signs to the reliance on electronic technology and now digital technology. Digital media are, therefore, modern Internet-enabled communication channels.

Digital media are characteristically different from print and electronic media in terms of their social and technological attributes, hence the accolade new media.

For example, digital media or new media platforms such as Social Networking Sites (SNS) or social media are interactive and driven by user-generated content. They are also difficult to control or regulate because 'no one' is completely in charge of the content.

Human dependence on digital media is not a recent phenomenon but the extent of dependence, especially here at the digital-south (technologically disadvantaged parts of the world) has never before been this massive.

In 2018, a global report on internet use compiled by international digital agencies, Hootsuite and We Are Social revealed that more than 10 million people in Ghana had access to the internet, and more than half of this number (5.6 million) were active social media users.

The current social distancing protocols have intensified the frequent use of already popular social media platforms such as Whatapp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Increased media dependence comes with significant media effects all things being equal.

 Effects

Excessive digital media use, especially for non-work-related activities may cause anxiety and other behavioural problems, especially among young adults. Prolonged hours in front of the computer or mobile phone screen (high screen time) may also lead to sleep, eating disorders and mental health problems.

Apart from that, social media users are exposed to internet threats and risks such as misinformation, disinformation, cyber-bullying, trolling and identity theft.

The dangers associated with new media are well documented but these are not easy to address at the macro level.

New media platforms such as social media are globalised, dynamic, hence elusive to conventional media regulation.

As a result, social media users must watch out as there can be no government regulation nor industry intervention that can guarantee the optimum protection for all users.

For example, Whatsapp, the instant messaging service owned by Facebook is doing all it can to address viral disinformation by limiting the number of times a message may be forwarded but this has not stopped viral misinformation.

 Critical

All social media users must, therefore, become critical of the content consumed and must be responsible for what they produce (including sharing), this is part of digital literacy. Digital literacy is a bundle of skills, knowledge and attitude necessary for the cautious, but productive participation on social media (and other new media).

New media require new competencies – digital literacy competencies. Digital literacy is indispensable under the current circumstances of high dependence on digital media technologies for daily subsistence.

 The writer lectures at the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ) and is a Director at the Africa Centre for Media and Financial Literacy. 

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