The spread of mass panic through SMS is unnecessary and people need to learn to look at information with a more critical eye.
People in general are too quick to pass on information without checking if it originates from someone they trust. Propagating certain dubious and false information can often have devastating results. The origin of such messages are rarely known, but the intentions are often far from good.
We live in a world where everyone is a potential publisher. Modern technology gives us the opportunity to spread information far and wide through a variety of different channels. Through blogs, social media applications, e-mail, SMS, and chat programs, we can send information, opinions and multi-media to virtually anywhere in the world.
Having so many means available to spread and gather information has many benefits. For one, governments cannot get away with hiding information. Protests of doubt around the legitimacy of last year’s Iranian elections results were proof of this. The protests were dubbed “The Twitter Revolution” due to the protesters' dependence on social networking platform Twitterand other similar Internet sites to communicate with each other.
This mass-panic through technology is not a new phenomenon - in 1938 the first segment of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds was aired over theColumbia Broadcasting Systemradio network. Since the first episode was done as a simulatednews bulletin, many listeners thought that an actualMartianinvasion was taking place. As the news spread from person to person, America was soon caught in a state of mass panic and widespread confusion.
More than 70 years on, people are still letting themselves fall victim to rumours and hearsay without first determining the accuracy of so-called ‘facts’. Take the recent politically-laden SMSes that did the rounds around the time of Eugene Terre’Blanche’s murder. The messages were highly sensationalist, potentially damaging and very much untrue. Yet, they managed to spread mass panic, unrest, fear and scepticism among citizens of the country.
Don’t just send it on
What many fail to realise is that with the increased power of mass information dissemination, comes increased responsibility. One has to become more discerning in how one approaches communications using new technologies.
The SMS channel is an especially dangerous means of transmitting upsetting messages. Because it is delivered directly to your phone and generally used as a means to alert, the gravity of the situation is amplified. The key is to stop and think before sending an SMS. Before potentially adding to or building on an already existing problem, ask yourself what the purpose of the message is and what the results would be if you were to send it on. Simply put, society needs to change and begin looking at the source of their information more critically.
When we were children the standing joke was that the kids, had to set the video machine for their non-technical parents. We’d grown up with video machines, while for our parents they were still new-fangled devices.
Fast forward to today and consider cell phones, the Internet, Skype, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Mxit, PVRs, Xboxes, e-books and the endless list of new communication technologies. These are all things that our children have grown up with, and take to like fish to water - while we probably only got our first cell phone when we started our first job, and then only used it for emergencies.
Every generation’s children complain bitterly that their parents just don’t understand them, with their parents muttering about how they did things better in their day. But never has a generation gap been as wide as it is today, with parents having very little understanding of the opportunities and the risks involved with the digital environments their children are growing up in.
A lack of understanding of the risks and dangers involved often results in two extremes in response from parents, neither of which is ideal. On the one hand parents might bury their heads in the sand because of the apparent technical complexity and leave their children to fend for themselves in the face of some very real dangers, and navigate important rites of passage unsupported and unassisted.
Or, alternatively, a parent might over react because they don’t understand the dangers involved and simply ban all things digital. Which not only leads to unnecessary conflict with the child and cuts them off from their social circle, but also disadvantages them in their adult life and careers, due to lack of experience communicating in a digital environment.
Parents have to educate themselves to understand both the opportunities and the dangers associated with digital communication technology in order to better guide their children and protect them from harm.
Some of the vital things parents and children need to learn include:
1.People aren’t always who they say they are. Just as adults fall for email phishing scams, children can get taken in by people misrepresenting themselves online with harmful intent.
2.Think before you post. In our day, playground conversations with our friends, complaining about teachers perhaps, ended as soon as the bell rang for the end of break. Today however, these conversations take place on Facebook, for anyone to read or forward even years later, and are almost impossible to delete.
3.Likewise, children need to think before they respond to things that other people have posted. A casual jokey comment about someone can very quickly escalate into an orchestrated cyber-bullying attack, with bystanders becoming accomplices at the click of mouse.
4.It’s not just about computers. Many parents don’t understand that the Internet their children can access via their cell phones is the same Internet, warts and all, accessed via a computer. Not only that, it is so much easier to make purchases on the Internet via cell phone as it just takes the click on a link, rather than entering credit card details.
Unfortunately though, too many technology companies simply release their products into the world, and don’t take responsibility for educating customers on how to use them safely. One of the places parents can go to educate themselves is www.parentscorner.org.za, a BulkSMS.com initiative aimed at informing parents about children and mobile phones. The blog contains advice from a family therapist; discussions around difficult topics such as whether you should monitor your children’s online activities; and useful links to other resources. The blog is complemented by a lecture series for schools and other interested organisations.
At the end of the day, it is worth remembering that the technology itself is neither good nor bad, but how it is used can have positive or negative consequences. Think of some of the benefits technology gives parents, for instance, thanks to cell phones children can easily call their parents in an emergency. But to benefit from these positives, parents have a responsibility to educate themselves about the technology, and protect their children from the dangers.