In the jungle of the internet

Education in times of digitalisation

by Dr. Eliane Perret, psychologist and remedial teacher

Who doesn’t know them, the slightly tilted heads at bus stops, the people standing together in small groups, staring at a flat, rectangular “thing” in their hands or swiping around on it? Or the gentleman in the suit who appears to be having a relaxed conversation with himself, laughing and pausing, until you discover that he is talking into his rectangular “thing”, equipped with headphones. When out walking, you see babies in their prams trying in vain to get eye contact with their mothers because those are fixated on their “thing”: the smartphone. What came onto the market as a clunky device – mainly used for making phone calls – is now a portable little computer, including a shopping centre, that accompanies people everywhere, to work and during leisure time, in the day and often also at night. And the same applies to children! They get involved with these devices at an increasingly younger age, and more and more experts are concerned about the associated development.

Count us out – we’re not taking any of this any longer

In October 2017, “The Guardian” published a report about employees who left their technology companies in Silicon Valley. They no longer wanted to spend their energy and vigour working for an internet catering to the demands of the advertising industry and vying for the capture of human attention. Justin Rosenberg was one of these. As a Facebook engineer, he had developed the “Like” button. Thumbs up and thumbs down – like it, don’t like it! Now he and other colleagues were concerned that this technology could distract people’s attention and concentration and even get them addicted. Some of them went even further in their deliberations. They noted that the ability to hold conversations and live in relationships was being altered and feared an increasing erosion of democratic systems.

Children as a target group of the market

They knew what they were talking about, having spent years meticulously developing technical ways to make users of websites and especially of so-called social media accessible to advertising. Now these technicians and engineers had had enough of servicing such marketing ideas.
  They all belonged to a generation still able to remember “a life before”. Many of them only used their own products when absolutely necessary. They sent their children to elite schools in Silicon Valley where iphones, ipads and laptops were not allowed. They knew the mechanisms inherent in the devices and were aware of the subtle psychological tricks used to entice users – who “just quickly” wanted to check their messages – to stay typing and swiping on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Tinder or Twitter for much, much longer than planned. How could children resist this temptation that adults had already succumbed to? Snap Chat, Tik Tok, WhatsApp and whatever else that children use today were created especially for them. Their increasing purchasing power has made them an important target group for the media industry.

Feeding illusions – creating dependency

Man is a social being. We want to be connected and in relationship with other humans, and be of importance to them. Whether and how we succeed, essentially determines our feeling to be valuable. This basic human need is exploited for the functioning of social media and computer games. Thus, there is a multitude of well thought-out technical mechanisms that animate users to stay longer on those websites and on the net in general. The personal data of users that can be obtained in this way is the “crude oil” of IT corporations that is sold to advertisers. For example, users are granted a certain amount of creative freedom, which feeds their illusion of being able to move independently and self-determined on the net. This includes the Like button, with which visitors to websites like Facebook can make their opinion known, in the belief that they are helping to shape the content of the net. The success of the Like button convinced other IT companies, and the idea was immediately adopted by Twitter, Instagram and other apps and websites. With other website operators, you can download their products (for example, PC games) for free; in return, they generate huge profits through integrated shops where (unnecessary) accessories can be purchased. With photo and video portals like Snap Chat or Instagram, you can change photos with filters or easy-to-use programmes and waste a lot of time on the net this way. In addition, Snap Chat has a built-in function – the Snapstreak – which counts the consecutive days on which one has exchanged a photo or video with a friend; after a 24 hour lack of communication, you have to start again from scratch. The social pressure created in this way pushes users to stay active. Computer games also exploit the desire to take part, to be there, so in multiplayer games like Fortnite, interruptions are associated with adverse consequences. Netflix and YouTube lead the user from one series to the next in an automated way; this arouses curiosity and makes it difficult to drop out. Games like CandyCrush, which is primarily aimed at an increasingly growing female “gaming community”, entice users to stay in the game by bestowing prompt successes on them. A complex reward system does not allow for any predictions of subsequent achievements, and so reinforces the desire for success all the more.
  Conclusion: These platforms exploit the healthy human need for relationships and social interaction. The fear of missing out tempts people to stay on them longer, and moods seduce people into quick, thoughtless actions and pointless online shopping.

And what is the point of all this?

A few years ago, the father of a student – he worked in an internet company – told me that we were clueless about how meticulously our activities on the net were recorded and evaluated. I was sceptical and hoped this assertion was exaggerated. He predicted that in a few years we would be amazed at how the unsolicited advertising offers would seemingly coincidentally precisely meet our interests. And how about today? The above-mentioned former employees of high-tech corporations also tell us this. For example, Facebook, considered by many to be a nice social network, has now replaced its Like button with the option of expressing six basic emotions. This is meant to capture the user’s mood and assess their buying behaviour in order to stock them up with appropriate offers. What works best will be tested through large-scale trials in which users serve as guinea pigs without first being asked.
  It would be going too far here to explain other technical possibilities of influencing people (for example by means of cookies, the pull-to-refresh function or even signal colours). In summary, they all serve to create a differentiated profile of the user, which is used for personalised advertising and individualised information offers. This increases the likelihood of this person’s spending time on the net and, if possible, making purchases. Children are also a customer segment that is targeted very specifically.

A lot to lose

But it is not just about business, although that runs into the billions. That would be too short-sighted. The personalised content delivered to users undermines their intellectual sovereignty and narrows their view of the world’s complexity. They receive selected information. The net becomes an echo chamber that confirms one’s own point of view and conveys the feeling of being in the best-informed and “right-thinking” society.
  The often-heard argument that one has nothing to hide therefore comes to nothing. It is all about control, power and manipulability. And we have a lot to lose: personal rights, the right to privacy, the right to our own image as well as unrestricted access to independent information as the supporting pillars of the free forming of opinions in a democratic society.

Self-determined and interested in the world

While we adults have the opportunity to make use of the internet as a multifaceted working tool even while being aware of the risks, this is hardly possible for children. We therefore have a duty to give them the necessary protection. What does that mean? The goal of all educational efforts is surely to educate our next generation to become mature citizens who actively and responsibly help shape life together. That is easy to say, but it involves fundamental considerations that are worthwhile to comprehend. We wish our children and young people to shape their lives in a self-determined way and to be responsible in their actions and feelings, thoughts and motives. That means they should have a healthy self-confidence combined with self-responsibility. We wish them a broad interest that goes beyond their own concerns to include those of their fellow human beings and even of the world. This means being active in life and broadening their own horizons to become capable of judging for themselves. This requires a corresponding educational background that strengthens the ability to judge and leads to an effective security in the encounter with the world. A successful educational process will create the necessary conditions for such a development.

Pampering – the path to a lack of courage

Today we often meet children and young people who lack the courage and confidence to tackle their tasks in life. Here we must look at the currently very widespread pampering style of upbringing (often paired with neglectful or authoritarian tendencies). Too many difficulties are conveyed out of the children’s way, and they are given too little guidance how to persevere in the pursuit of a goal. There is always someone who speaks for the child, sees dangers and tries to prevent them. Such children do not learn, or learn too little, to build on their strengths and to cope with more demanding situations without constant support. To be sure, they do not lack ambition, but this is often linked to the idea of achieving brilliant results without much effort. If something does not work out immediately, their disappointment is excessive and often coupled with hypersensitivity, resentment, displeasure or temper tantrums. Against this background, the path to becoming a mature citizen of the world is blocked. These children and adolescents are curtailed in their aptitude to relate and hindered in their possibilities and abilities to shape life in a self-determined and courageous way. They hardly ever experience satisfaction through their own efforts. Their lack of courage leads them to avoid demands.

Bogus solutions on the net

Such children and adolescents run a great risk of not being able to resist the temptations of the internet, of the social media and computer games discussed at the outset – a convenient way of avoiding life’s tasks and a supposed loss of prestige. Prestige is sought in the circle of the equally discouraged. They speak the same language, have the same interests and values. Activities on the internet become a means of escape that temporarily alleviates one’s own insecurity. But it remains a pseudo-solution because it does not encourage the young person to tackle his or her life’s tasks, to become more relational and cooperative – in short, to become a player. On the contrary, it can lead to dependency, because the gap to the demands of life becomes wider and wider. As parents and educators, we have a duty to give our children and young people the protection they need.

A sense of significance

For earlier generations, coping with everyday life occupied an important place. The whole family was involved in various ways. Since then, many achievements have been developed to make life easier. Just think of all the utensils in the kitchen, our possibilities to move from one place to another, and so on. But children and young people need the opportunity to be active themselves and to experience the feeling of being noticed by the people around them, of having an impact and meaning for others. A corresponding lack of experience can lead to boredom and ultimately to addictive behaviour.

Engaging in conversation with each other

Children strive for independence and autonomy in many areas and want to test and assert their own ideas. At the same time, they seek and need the discussion with their parents, to learn their point of view in order to find their own way. And they also need this kind of support in learning how to deal constructively with the media. This does not mean that parents have to surf around on all platforms and waste their time with PC games, but a certain knowledge of the mainstream offers is certainly helpful to get into a conversation with children and young people. As a parent, you can show them how you yourself use digital devices as working tools in your everyday life and assign them an appropriate place in your daily life. This orientation gives the adolescents the necessary protection so that they do not lose themselves in the digital no man’s land, and it also reduces the danger of power struggles between parents and children.

Got it all wrong?

It is not easy for parents today to introduce their children to digital media. After all, it’s not about remaining in the digital stone age. Parents often feel under considerable pressure to make the various devices accessible to their children (“because everyone else has it too...”).
  The sensible path to the digital device leads step by step from analogue to digital media, from picture books to smartphones, according to a child’s psychosocial stage of development. Basically, the guidelines “analogue before digital” and “producing before consuming” are helpful. But what if, as a parent, you realise that there is a considerable gap between such a plan and the reality? When the inevitable conflicts have worn you down? Perhaps then your gaze must first linger on where you managed – for example, to postpone the purchase of a smartphone for a year? And from this success you may gain the confidence that you didn’t do everything wrong!

Finding their place in the world

Children are not born technology freaks, they are raised to it. Today the temptation is great for them to shift their social life into the digital world at an early age. Therefore, they need to develop their social interests – with our help. In this way, they often discover impressive ways to be active and creative, as the following example shows: In Maria’s school, money had been collected as part of a project for children at risk of going blind. Their fate had obviously touched the girl, and Maria had an idea. She set up a small table on the pavement in front of her house and sold toys, books and homemade roasted almonds to passers-by. She was very proud to be able to do something for other children in this way.  •

The following books and websites gave me important impulses when writing:

  • Alter, Adam. Unwiderstehlich. Der Aufstieg suchterzeugender Technologien und das Geschäft mit unserer Abhängigkeit. (Irresistible. The rise of addictive technologies and the trade with our addiction.) Berlin-Verlag. 2020. ISBN 978-3-8270-1294-4
  • Bleckmann, Paula. Medienmündig. (Media Maturity.) Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta. 2012. ISBN 978-3-608-94626-0
  • Buermann, Uwe. Aufrecht durch die Medien. Chancen und Gefahren des Informationszeitalters und die neuen Aufgaben der Pädagogik. (Upright through the media. Chances and dangers of the information age and the new tasks of pedagogy). Flensburg: Flensburger Hefte Verlag. 2007. ISBN 978-3-935679-38-1
  • Dopamin (Dopamine): Miniseries on the addictive mechanisms of Tinder, Facebook and Co. https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/RC-017841/dopamin. Available from 10 September 2020 to 3 September 2023.
  • Feibel, Thomas. Jetzt pack doch mal das Handy weg. (Will you just put away that mobile phone.) Berlin: Ullstein. 2017. ISBN 978-3-548–37719–3
  • Lewis, Paul. “Our minds can be hijacked: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia”. In: The Guardian, 5  2017; https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia
  • Perret, Eliane. Das Smartphone – ein Geschenk oder ein gemeinsames Projekt? (The smartphone – a gift or a shared project?) in: Current Concerns no. 24 of 10 November 2020
  • Planet Wissen. Soziale Medien – Wie sicher sind unsere Daten? (Social media – How secure is our data?); www.planet-wissen.de, accessed 26 February 2019, available until 26 February 2024.
  • Soziale Netzwerke: Die wichtigsten Social-Media-Plattformen im Überblick (Social networks: An overview of the most important social media platforms)”. www.ionos.de
  • Spyri, Johanna. Keiner zu klein, ein Helfer zu sein. Geschichten für Kinder und solche, die Kinder lieb haben (There’s no one too small to be a helper. Stories for children and those who love children.) Zurich: Ernst Waldmann Verlag
  • Wunsch, Albert. Droge Verwöhnung. Eine Erziehung zu mehr Eigenverantwortlichkeit. (Pampering as a drug. An education towards more personal responsibility. Munich: Kösel-Verlag. 2013
  • Weiss, Jennifer. Die wichtigsten sozialen Medien. Ein Überblick (The most important social media. An overview); https://blog.mediakraft.de/, accessed 22 February 2021
  • Various short films for children on the topic of social media at www.logo.de, accessed 22 February 2021

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