We need new digital skills

Anastasia Kozyreva on strategies that help us gain more control over the way we use online media

According to Statista, people in Germany spend around five and a half hours online every day. Many realise that this is not beneficial for them, but find it difficult to switch off the computer or put away the mobile phone. Researchers from Berlin, Stanford and Bristol have developed a strategy to make this easier. Anastasia Kozyreva, co-author and researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, explains how this can help people gain more control over their own online media use. 

Ms Kozyreva, why do we spend so much time on social media and fall prey to fake news and seemingly outrageous claims?

Anastasia Kozyreva: We humans are social creatures for whom it's always been very important to get information from our community and share it with others to survive. We have evolved to pay special attention to information that is negative or very emotional because it prepares us to avoid possible dangers or alerts us if somebody needs our help.

This has served us well for millennia. But in recent decades, we have entered this completely new world with regard to information, the digital world. Online media and social media platforms, in particular, flood us with news. We are supposed to spend as much time as possible on such platforms or websites, so that the providers can place as much advertising as possible. To this end, they use ancient mechanisms with which they attract our attention. We have not had time to adapt. That's why we need new digital skills that are better adapted to the challenges we are facing online. Together with my colleagues, we argue that in the digital world, competence of critical ignoring is as important as critical thinking.

How does critical ignoring work?

To practice critical ignoring, one could use three strategies. The first one is self-nudging. This means that I design my environment in such a way that I can actually implement the resolutions I have made. This works in many areas of life: for example, even though I cannot control the food options in the supermarkets, I can choose what foods I keep at home.  And there, too, we can control our behaviour by adapting our choice environments. For example, if you want to eat fewer sweets and more fruit, you can put the sweets way up in the cupboard and put a bowl of fruit on the table. Only when you consciously want to treat yourself to a piece of chocolate, you get up on the chair and take it out of the cupboard.

This can also be transferred to the digital world. We can and we should actively decide how much time we spend on our smartphones, tables, or PCs. Our digital devices offer us some sort of control. For example, we can set time limits on the use of social media apps as well as set times when we do not want to be disturbed (e.g., at night).

This frees up time for offline activities that bring value to one's life, such as time spent with family and friends, or doing things one really enjoys. This is also crucial for focused work and learning that befit from absence of distractions.

However, in the time that I am still online, quite a lot of news reach me. How can I find out which is valid and which is fake news?

There is a strategy for this called “lateral reading”, i.e. reading sideways, so to speak. Normally we read a website from top to bottom. That's how we learn it in school: to critically examine a text by going through it very carefully from beginning to end. Fact checkers proceed differently: they open another tab in the browser - i.e. sideways - and do internet searches on who’s behind the website. There are an astonishing number of sites that make themselves appear legitimate, but are in fact backed by lobby groups, for example from industry, who try to influence public opinion in this way.

Doesn’t this checking process take much too long?

No, it often takes just a few minutes to find out whether a source is trustworthy. That’s generally much quicker than trying to read a website critically and see from the content whether it is reputable or not. By the way, lateral reading works the same way for videos on YouTube or TikTok: when it comes to political or scientific content, we should check who is behind it.

Does that mean we should be generally suspicious?

In the case of sources that we cannot verify, this is indeed advisable. Conversely, however, we should also consider in a positive sense who we can trust. Especially here in Europe, there are many trustworthy media and institutions: the public broadcasters or the major daily newspapers. It is important that the sources are independent of lobbyists or populist movements.

A big problem in chats or social media is hate speech: racist or sexist comments, insults, threats. Many people think they should intervene when reading hateful comments. Is that advisable?

No, absolutely not! Because that's exactly what these people want to achieve: malicious actors want to annoy and upset people, and they feel vindicated when they get a response. The old rule applies here: don't feed the trolls! The best thing is to ignore trolls, block them if possible and report them to the platform. This is also about protecting ourselves: engaging in discussions with malicious actors can be really damaging for our mental health and our relationships with other people. However, platform operators should definitely take action against trolls and remove hate speech or other harmful content.

Who did you develop your recommendations for?

This really concerns all of us, young and old alike. But I think it is particularly important to teach these strategies in schools. They are easy to learn and very effective. By teaching young people critical ignoring, you empower them to efficiently and intentionally allocate their attention and shield themselves from the information disorders of today’s attention economy.

Thank you for this interview!

Interview: Mechthild Zimmermann

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