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Media Literacy Is Key For People of All Ages

11/04/2013 05:30 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

November 4-8, 2013, is Media Literacy Week in Canada. A project of MediaSmarts and the Canadian Teachers' Federation, the week focuses on helping young people become more aware of the power and influence of media in their lives.

This year's theme is marketing and consumerism: What's Being Sold: Helping Kids Make Sense of Marketing Messages. While the goal is to encourage educators and parents to talk to children and teens about the marketing they encounter on a daily basis, the "Media Minute" videos are worthwhile viewing for people of all ages. (You can access the videos and more from the website medialiteracyweek.ca.)

Looking through the Media Literacy Week materials brought to mind a number of thoughts about how the relationship between youth and technology is generally perceived. The term "digital native" is now commonly used to describe members of the emerging generation raised with ubiquitous web-based and mobile communications technologies. However, knowing how to access and manipulate a variety of digital services doesn't convey understanding of the potential implications.

As noted on the Media Literacy Week site: "Young people are immersed in media, moving beyond geographical and regulatory boundaries as they access, absorb, communicate, create and repurpose media content. And they're doing this largely without guidance and often without reflection." The most serious consequences of this lack of guidance and reflection are writ large in the headlines about teen suicides linked to cyber-bullying.

As someone who works in the field of adult literacy, it is clear to me that all Canadians can benefit from improving their digital skills: parents can do a better job of providing the guidance children need to become safe and responsible users of social media; mid-career professionals can better adapt to evolving communications and knowledge-management systems; and workers in many segments of the labour market can be better prepared for the introduction of new technologies in their workplaces.

Seniors also have a lot to gain through upgrading their ability to use computer-based technology. For example, becoming more comfortable with email and social media channels can help older people stay connected with younger family members, enhancing their sense of social well-being while reducing feelings of isolation.

Cyber-Seniors is a intergenerational driven program that creates opportunities for high school students to mentor senior citizens on basic computer and online skills. Founded in 2009 by two Toronto high school students, Kascha and Macaulee Cassaday, Cyber-Seniors started as a local community service project. The sisters were inspired after witnessing how learning to use the Internet had transformed their grandparents' lives.

Now branching out as a growing program with a website and resources, Cyber-Seniors brings together student mentors and senior citizens through in-person and virtual tutorials -- a Google Hangout mentor platform is imminent -- where students instruct seniors on how to use computers and social media tools to connect with friends and family. The program is currently building partnerships with schools, youth groups, seniors organizations, volunteer organizations and corporate partners to help expand the program across Canada and around the globe.

Canadian Literacy and Learning Network is proud to be part of the launch of the Cyber-Seniors new year-long national campaign, which is generously supported by Google Canada, in association with Media Literacy Week organizers. Campaign materials include free handbooks for program participants and youth mentors, and a feature-length documentary, Cyber Seniors, to be released in 2014. Inspired by the original high-school project, the film introduces viewers to the founding members of Cyber-Seniors and shows how wonderful things that can happen when generation gaps are bridged and new ways of connecting are explored.

Special Community Outreach Screenings will be taking place across Canada: Ottawa (date to be announced soon), in Toronto on Nov 29 with additional screenings to be confirmed. These previews will be open on an invite basis to organizations and youth groups that would like to support or set up Cyber-Senior initiatives in their communities. The film's producers, The Best Part Inc, are looking for sponsors for additional events and screenings. Details will be available on their website.

Better awareness and improved skills can spur people of all ages to acquire the knowledge and strategies they need to be more informed actors in our increasingly media-immersed and technology-influenced lives. Media education seeks to provide young people with the knowledge, values and a range of critical thinking, communication and information management skills they need to be "media literate." But there are also roles for parents, grandparents and other community members in providing guidance to these digital natives.

Programs like Cyber-Seniors, in addition to teaching important digital skills to seniors, help young people to build connections within the larger community, outside their peer group. Exploring online information and social media together with seniors exposes young people to different perspectives, and can help them to reflect on their own engagement with media and the importance of lifelong learning.

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