MEDIA AND PARENTING
A four-day workshop on "Information Management in the Digital Age" conducted in by a Delhi-based NGO, the Centre for Science and Environment(CSE), gave me an update on the techniques that professionals use to stay on top of the intensive influx of information in this age. For an agency with a reputation in documentation and research-based environmental campaigns, information is the key'so naturally, CSE has had to keep pace with information technology over the last two decades not only for developing, managing and disseminating content, but also for marketing their own products and services across the world.
Yet, for me, the revelation, and the comfort factor, was really the visit to their archives department, where it was evident that, besides all the high-tech tools and techniques the agency utilises, humans and not robots were running their eyes over acres of printed publications from all over the world, and using their human judgment and skills to pick out relevant news items for follow-up by other departments. It was a place where I felt very happy indeed.
Ah yes, I do sorely miss those days when it was possible to single-handedly keep track of interesting happenings in the newspapers, write the name and date of the source publication, clip out the news items and paste them in a scrapbook. I believe that the act of physically storing a hard copy of the information from print publications not just helped me remember the content better and retrieve it faster, it also helped me make a mental note of the source of the information. Besides, my work as an editor of scientific articles made it doubly important that sources were recorded accurately, not just by me, but also by others who contributed articles to the publication.
Nowadays, children with access to computers and the Internet have side-stepped this whole process (and the accompanying angst) and directly moved on to search engines. "Could you download the lyrics of Jingle Bells for me?," asked my eight-old son during Christmas. "Could you Google and give me a printout of the guide for drawing Goku (a Dragonball Z character)?," he had asked some months ago, later painstakingly following each step in the guide to create some really good illustrations of the aforementioned Goku.
Occasional forays into cyberspace under parental supervision may be a reality that we have to contend with nowadays, but I believe that more dialogue has to take place between parents and children and parents and teachers if we need to deal creatively with the potential and liabilities of the Internet as a resource.
It worries me that if unregulated, this easy accessibility to information may lead children to take short-cuts knowing that this great big resource is always there to tap. Internet searches are heavily dependent on key word phrasing which can also give a false sense of finality to a young mind that could be limiting. As one of the instructors at CSE asked when making a point about websites and key word searches: how many people really take the trouble to go the next page of options when they do a key word search on a search engine?
However, as a writer and editor, my specific concern is about issues of originality and authorship or even the simple matter of appreciating or acknowledging the author of the information. How do we convey the concept of "authorship" to young children who may not read as much in print as we did, and who use the Internet more than we do? Or is it something that we assume they will just pick up? I don't think so.
From nursery school onwards, the practice of cutting out pictures from newspapers and magazines and using them for school projects is a common activity. From this stage, the Internet is but a click away, and would it be so surprising if children and their parents use this as a resource for obtaining pictures and information in later classes, maybe even without giving proper credit to the sources? The format of information on the Internet and the concept of hyperlinks make it difficult to remember the authors unless one makes a conscious attempt to record this information. Some might argue that it is ridiculous to insist that young children credit the source of their information even for school projects, but I believe that if the awareness is created at this stage, it will help them in later stages when they might have to write articles or academic papers and theses. It may also help curb mindless recycling and rehashing of information.
I believe that parents and teachers consciously need to make time for creative activities in the real world and in real time in order to convey the idea of authorship to the child. Besides this, they may also need to put in place a list of dos and don'ts (which is publicised and adhered to by all students) like not using Internet-based resources for certain projects, or insisting on handwritten projects with hand-drawn illustrations and proper lists of sources even from class 1.
It is never to early to make a point about originality. Some time ago, we went on a bird watching trip where my son took a set of digital photographs of some birds we saw. He was deeply disappointed that he hadn't got a shot of an Adjutant Stork that we had seen, and insisted that his father take a printout of the bird that was available on the Internet so that he could tell his friends that he had seen it. Hmm, so we had a situation here, I thought, and asked him gently whether all the pictures were his. When he declared proudly: "this picture of the Adjutant Stork is from the Internet, but I took these other ones!", I breathed a sigh of relief.
Next time, we could talk about writing this information down.