To whom and for what purpose our children serve?

“Education is what remains after you forget everything you learned in school,” Albert Einstein once said. What remains for our young people when the school bell rings? What interests them? What do they read, watch? What are the contents, and what is the value character of those contents? I fear that neither the parents nor the teaching staff know the real answer, but only Mark Zuckerberg (Meta – Facebook and Instagram) and Zhang Yiming (Tik Tok), the essential connoisseurs of our habits, desires, longings, and fears.

Exposure of young people, and not only them, to harmful media content affecting their maturation and growing up has deep roots. The craving to possess characteristics is inherent in the globalized world and consumerist societies. In traditional media, especially on social networks, influence and money have become a modus vivendi. Additionally, media often promote certain standards of beauty, behaviour, and success, which can influence the self-confidence and self-acceptance of young people. The pressure of comparing with the “ideal lives” of others on social networks leads to stress, increased anxiety, and often ends in peer online violence – cyberbullying. Furthermore, the growing gaming industry brings numerous video games that promote violence as a new normal, and there are also frequent cases of blending fiction and reality among minors, seriously affecting their emotional maturation. Although they seem to listen and watch, it appears that young people hear and see less and less. Ethical boundaries and frameworks are rapidly collapsing, tolerance for online violence is increasing, and the average citizen’s interest in these topics, in societies with deep social and political divisions, practically does not exist.

The broad availability of various types of media content is the fate of our time. It is often not easy to strike a balance between protectioning the basic human rights of individuals or groups of people, as well as ethics, and restrictions that can be seen as stifling freedom of expression and censorship. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has exposed the dark sides of social networks to the extreme, as Al Jazeera Balkans recently reported on its X account, showing a video trend among Israelis mocking the suffering of Palestinians. Unfortunately, children are also invoved in this mockery. Increased exposure to such inappropriate content can have serious consequences for the mental health of young people, and many experts are still researching the connection between the consumption of violent content in the media and the aggressive behaviour of individuals.

When the yard game is replaced by screen time…

Young people and children most often take over their behaviour patterns from their parents. What we do, our habits, what we read and watch are largely reflected in their habits. Screen addiction is a new disease of the societies in which we live. Unfortunately, this is confirmed by the research of the Agency for Electronic Media (AEM) from 2022, which showed that “on weekdays, on average, children admit to spending four hours using a mobile phone, and on weekends, it can be p to 5 hours on average. It is important to note that this is an average, meaning that there are many children who say that they use mobile phones more than this during the day.” The same research states that “children spend two and a half hours watching TV on weekdays, and two hours on average in front of the computer. There is also half an hour of playing games. In total, children spend up to 9 hours a day in front of various screens on average. On weekends even more than that.”

YouTube – a sad picture of our reality

Today, there are numerous ways to restrict content that children have access to through applications or television. Cable operators have improved the system of protection of minors by offering internal mechanisms to limit or even ban inappropriate content. When it comes to smartphones, time-limited access to applications by parents means nothing if there is no control over the content that children visit within that allowed period. The fact is that young people overcome new technological challenges much faster than their parents, and are also more adept at finding the information they are interested in. The simplest insight into YouTube trending, i.e. into what is currently the most watched video content in the country, speaks volumes for the kind of society we live in, and Montenegro is no exception. In the top 30 most viewed video clips are content related to reality shows, music of controversial texts (about which Juventas conducted a particularly interesting research), then video clips of YouTube influencers promoting various types of challenges and ways to get money quickly. Quite often, the contents of YouTube influencers are sponsored by casinos and bookmakers, which promotes such a way of earning, which is prohibited by law for minors. In this tango between advertisers and the media, an individual suffers, and consequently, so do many around him.

We can’t defeat algorithms, but…

The algorithms imposed on us by social networks are not an unchangeable category, not something we can overcome, but we participate in their change with reading and viewing habits. META has provided easy access to what its users are watch and listen to. Exploring the data, more specifically key topics related to  my accounts on social networks, I realized that they provide insight into all my interests and occupations in the past few years – very precisely and in great detail. It may sound creepy to some, not to others, but META evidently knows its users better than maybe we understand our friends, family, partners, children. By changing habits for the better, by strengthening our own awareness of the media, by strengthening our own media literacy, we also protect young people from possible media manipulation and abuse.

Education as prevention

The importance of the media in shaping the attitudes and values of young people is still underestimated. Informal education programs carried out by organizations such as the Centre for Civic Education (CCE) and the Media Institute of Montenegro (IMCG) can be the initial capsule for a better understanding of our media reality. However, these useful programs are of limited duration, and after their end, young people return to their cultural patterns and habits that we can no longer follow. However, we deeply believe that with a raised awareness of what they read, what they watch and how they filter information, they can oppose the malignant influence that comes from certain media and platforms. In this context, it is necessary to expand the scope of topics and target groups in non-formal education programs, but also to establish their continuity, so that the effects are stronger.

The importance of media and digital hygiene

Basic and comprehensive initiatives are needed for Montenegro to become a society that fosters media literacy at all levels. This implies the integration of media literacy into various aspects of society. It is good that the subject of media literacy, which was previously only available in high schools, is now available in all primary schools. The formation of the National Council for Media Literacy, which is foreseen in the Media Strategy, must not remain a dead letter, but must be a body that will proactively and concretely work to improve media literacy, primarily among children and young people.

Digital and media hygiene is a prerequisite for good mental health. Often, small steps are needed, and to start, one of them is changing the order of TV channels on cable operators. Leave the end of the list for those media that violate basic ethical norms and values. You will hardly change channels until the end of the list. Also, follow all accounts on social networks from which you have nothing useful to hear and learn, but also all those accounts that use insults or hate speech instead of arguments. It will take a little of your time, but it is long-term healing, and you will be better off.

Damir Nikočević, Development Coordinator

The text is published at the portal of the Media Institute of Montenegro (