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How to maintain good online habits in a world shaped by algorithms

5 things you can do to build a bigger and better information bubble

Juliet Waters
March 24, 2020

Kids love YouTube. In fact, videos aimed at kids, especially those that include kids, are three times more popular than any other content on the platform, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Centre. YouTube is really good at grabbing kids’ attention and encouraging them to keep watching.

How does YouTube do this? Like many other platforms, YouTube uses artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. These sets of computer commands quickly analyze clues that kids provide. When kids click the “like” button, how long they watch a video, how quickly they stop watching; all these behaviours become data that an AI algorithm collects. AI also tracks and predicts how often kids respond to familiar choices, compared to how often they need fresh choices. The way kids interact with these predictions is transformed into even more data which helps the algorithms get better at offering content that will be liked often and watched longer.

The more kids choose what the algorithm suggests, the more the pattern is reinforced, and the greater the chances we find our kids living in a “preference bubble,”a narrow and limited view of the world.

This isn’t necessarily all bad. A preference bubble can help keep kids from being led to inappropriate or disturbing material. But it can also lock kids into a very small ecosystem that discourages diversity. Think of this like any other ecosystem. We want to have a good balance of bacteria. Of course, we want to have routines that limit the spread of harmful viruses, but if our environment is too sterile we risk not developing the strong and healthy immune system that allows everyone to live safely and openly in the world.

We want our kids to remain curious. We also want them to build strong critical thinking skills and creative energy that will empower them as active and empathetic digital citizens. We want our kids to be the programmers of their environment, not the programmed.

Here are 5 habits that we can build into our routines to make our preference bubbles bigger and more resilient.

1. Be aware of the bubble

Understand and help your kids to see that AI is not making recommendations based on what is good for them, but on what it knows they will impulsively choose. Encourage kids to reflect regularly on the choices being provided. Are kids learning about something interesting, educational, or new? Or just unboxing one more toy?

2. Actively search for ideas that challenge your model of the world

Consider watching something that you might not agree with, but is expressed in a way that is candid and sincere. Think about what’s being represented in the content being offered. Is there enough content about people who are different from you?

3. Consume content from near and far

Does the content you see represent the creativity and energy of people in your neighborhood, town or city, or is it usually international? It’s important to know what’s happening around the world, but are you able to find content that will connect you to and make you curious about local people you might one day see or even meet?

4. Be intentional with the time you spend online

Are the things you view and read meaningful, or is it mostly just a diversion? Social media can be fun, and should remain light and playful. But if it’s all shallow escapism, the problems and anxieties we’re trying to avoid will continue to accumulate.

5. Spend time offline

Taking frequent and regular reflection breaks is the preference bubble equivalent of regularly washing your hands. Check in regularly with how your online activity is making you feel. Go outside. Build routines around offline activities. Increase the probability of discovering something cool that may become part of your healthy bubble!

Ready to keep learning about the world of algorithms behind your screen? The Algorithm Literacy Project, an effort by KCJ and CCUNESCO, provides you and the young people in your life with the resources you need to understand how algorithms work and how to act as responsible digital citizens. Have questions or comments to share? Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #GetAlgoLit.

An important message from our friends at UNESCO:

As of March 17th, over 850 million children and youth – roughly half of the world’s student population – had to stay away from schools and universities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The adverse impacts of school closures are difficult to overstate and many of them extend beyond the education sector. UNESCO has compiled a short list of these impacts to help countries anticipate and mitigate problems. They include:

  • Interrupted learning: The disadvantages are disproportionate for under-privileged learners who tend to have fewer educational opportunities outside school.
  • Nutrition: Many children and youth rely on free or discounted school meals for healthy nutrition. When schools close, nutrition is compromised..
  • Protection: Schools provide safety for many children and youth and when they close, young people are more vulnerable and at risk.
  • Parents unprepared for distance and home schooling: When schools close, parents are often asked to facilitate the children’s learning at home and can struggle to perform this task. This is especially true for parents with limited education and resources.
  • Unequal access to digital learning portals: Lack of access to technology or good internet connectivity is an obstacle to continued learning, especially for students from disadvantaged families.
  • Gaps in childcare: In the absence of alternative options, working parents often leave children alone when schools close and this can lead to risky behaviors, including increased peer pressure and substance abuse.
  • High economic costs: Working parents are more likely to miss work to take care of their children when schools close. This results in wage loss and decreased productivity.
  • Increased pressure on schools and school systems that remain open: Localized school closures place additional burden on schools as parents and officials redirect children to schools that are open.
  • Rise in dropout rates: It is a challenge to ensure children and youth return and stay in school when schools reopen, especially after protracted closures.
  • Social isolation: Schools are hubs of social activity and human interaction. When schools close, many children and youth miss out on social contact that is essential to learning and development.