A Message To Our Fellow Digital Literacy and Internet Safety Presenters

April 13, 2024

“In his 1996 book, “The Vision of the Anointed”, economist Thomas Sowell sketched out a pattern that many of the “crusading movements” of the 20th century have followed. First, they identify a “great danger” to society, followed by an “urgent need” for government action “to avert impending catastrophe.” 

Dr Aaron Brown

As digital literacy and internet safety advocates, we strive to equip our audiences with the critical thinking skills they need to navigate the complexities of today’s onlife world based upon the good evidence-based research currently available. In an era where information overload and mis/disinformation are prevalent, a concept that is crucial for presenters, parents, and youth to understand when it comes to digital literacy and internet safety is confirmation bias. This concept influences how we perceive and interpret information, affecting our beliefs and decisions. Let’s delve into what confirmation bias is, and how we can help both ourselves and our audience develop a balanced perspective when it comes to digital literacy and Internet safety education.

Confirmation Bias:

Confirmation bias refers to our tendency to seek out, interpret, and remember information that confirms our existing beliefs or hypotheses. It’s like wearing tinted glasses that filter out conflicting viewpoints that reinforce our own perspectives. For example, if we hold a certain political stance, we might be more likely to consume news sources that align with that viewpoint while dismissing or ignoring contradictory information. Unfortunately, much like politics have become very partisan, so too has the research, and the interpretation of that research, when it comes to youth and their use of technology and any emotional, psychological, physical, and social effects it has on users. In our field of digital literacy and internet safety advocacy, confirmation bias can manifest when we interpret research through the lens of our preconceived notions and feelings about what we often experience anecdotally. 

Those of us who teach digital literacy and Internet safety to youth, parents, and caregivers can sometimes be caught up in confirmation bias – here at the White Hatter, this is something we are consistently mindful of. It is because of this fact we seek to challenge our own beliefs and demonstrate a willingness to engage with ideas that challenge our own thoughts and teachings. We purposely seek out diverse peer-reviewed research sources of information and evaluate it critically before forming opinions using an evidence-based approach. We are more than willing to change our position based on new information, constantly question our teachings, and consider alternative perspectives if they are based on good evidence-based research. Creating lesson plans, legislation, or policy based on anecdotal experience, feelings, personal morals, righteousness, or questionable research is never a good idea!

So, why does this matter? 

Currently, there’s a noticeable academic “digital divide” emerging, particularly in research concerning the emotional, psychological, physical, and social impacts of technology on youth, which presenters like us often reference for guidance when it comes to teens and screens. On one side of this digital argument, we find academic voices such as Dr. John Haidt and Dr. Jean Twenge. On the other side, we encounter a cadre of other research experts including Dr. Pete Etchells, Dr. Amy Orben, Dr. Andrew Przbylski, Dr. Jeff Hancock, Dr. Chris Ferguson, and Dr. Candace Odgers.

Unfortunately, it is becoming more clear to us that given this digital divide, “never the twain shall meet” We do think that the academic interactions and debate between these two groups have stayed relatively cordial, however, things are definitely starting to heat up, especially with the recent release of Dr. Haidt’s book, “The Anxious Generation – How The Great Rewiring Of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Health” (1) and Dr Pete Etchells’ newly released book “Unlocked – The Real Science of Screen Time” (2)  Each book takes diametrically opposed academic approaches in utilizing research to bolster their thesis and proposing solutions for managing technology use.

So, Who Should We Presenters Turn To?

We suppose it hinges on your perspective. Here at the White Hatter, we advocate for enlightening rather than frightening, relying on facts over fear. We prioritize consulting with and quoting academic researchers who specialize in conducting rigorous, evidence-based studies rather than those who only interpret others’ research. That’s why much of our educational material aligns with the research conducted by experts such as Dr. Pete Etchells, Dr. Amy Orben, Dr. Andrew Przbylski, Dr. Jeff Hancock, Dr. Chris Ferguson, Dr. Candace Odgers, Dr. Sonia Livingston, Dr. Jacqueline Nesi, Dr. Rachel Kowert, Dr. Justin Patchin and Dr Sammer Hinduja to name a few.

However, we also acknowledge that certain insights from others, such as Dr. Haidt, are also important.  Dr. Haidt’s views on the significance of “free play” with our children echo our convictions and are reinforced by solid research, as are his perspectives on increasing accountability for social media platforms. It’s essential to engage with information from both perspectives – our sole aim in sorting out this academic discourse is to provide our audience with the most credible information possible so that they can make an informed decision.

Why Is This A Concern?

Some advocates for digital literacy and internet safety within our community, who wield influence over politicians and school boards, are exclusively promoting one perspective in the academic digital debate to support what we believe to be a Nirvana Fallacy. They overlook the research findings of the opposing side, instead, emphasizing and promoting research that aligns with their own and other’s political agenda. 

Frankly speaking, some are endorsing Dr. Haidt’s book as the definitive research authority, without even acknowledging Dr. Etchells’ book as a counterargument or alternative to Dr. Haidt’s thesis. We’ve encountered statements from some presenters in our field of digital literacy and internet safety, asserting that Dr. Haidt’s book represents a “tidal wave” of evidence that supports their position. But, have they taken the time to engage with Dr. Etchells’ book that provides a different thesis that is buttressed with good evidence-based research as well, or are they willfully blind to this research because of confirmation bias? Have they watched a video critique of Dr. Haidt’s book by Dr. Aaron Brown, a mathematician and statistician, who recently raised questions about much of the research cited by Dr. Haidt?(3) And do they make such opposing critiques publicly available to others to aid in their decision-making process? 

So Why Does This All Matter:

At times, as presenters who focus on digital literacy and internet safety, it may seem tempting, and even financially profitable, to emphasize a “fear-based” agenda. However, opting for the easiest path for the wrong reasons may not serve the best interests of our audience in navigating their use of technology in today’s onlife world. Here at the White Hatter, we remain committed to an enlightening rather than frightening approach, rooted in evidence-based research rather than fearmongering. Our approach is informed by rigorous well respected academic peer-reviewed research from diverse perspectives across the academic spectrum. We urge others in our field to adopt a similar commitment to evidence-based discourse.

As digital literacy and internet safety advocates, our foremost goal is to equip our audiences with the critical thinking skills needed to navigate the complexities of today’s digitally interconnected world, grounded in “all” the evidence-based research available to us. We recognize the pervasive influence of confirmation bias, which can shape our perceptions and interpretations of information, particularly in the area of technology’s impact on youth. As presenters, it’s crucial for us to stay alert against confirmation bias, consistently challenge our own preconceptions, embrace diverse viewpoints, and counteract alarmist and Nirvana Fallacy-driven messaging that often serves political agendas.

While cordial academic discourse persists, the morally righteous approaches taken in recent publications highlight the need for a balanced consideration of evidence from both sides. Unfortunately, some presenters within our field prioritize their own agendas over comprehensive engagement with diverse research findings, favoring one perspective without acknowledging alternatives. This selective endorsement undermines the integrity of our collective efforts in digital literacy and internet safety education.

Moving forward, it is imperative that we, as advocates and educators, uphold the principles of intellectual integrity and open-mindedness. We must resist the temptation to succumb to confirmation bias and instead embrace a commitment to evidence-based discourse. By fostering a culture of critical inquiry and inclusivity, we can empower our audiences to make informed decisions and navigate the onlife world with confidence and resilience.

Digital Food For Thought

The White Hatter





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