In line with the government's enthusiastic approach toward a digital Bangladesh, the country has made decent progress in digitalising many of its public services to make them more accessible, affordable and cost-effective. The latest BTRC data shows Bangladesh continues to maintain the upward trend in indices like the number of mobile phone users, internet subscription and penetration rates, teledensity etc. These are all well and good, but when it comes to digital or internet literacy, it appears we still have a long way to go.
As communication increasingly relies on virtual media, digital literacy is all too important in these days and ages. Digital literacy means understanding how the online world works; not just knowing how to access it. Simply put, it includes the skills and awareness required to sensibly use digital technologies, like the internet, social media and mobile devices. It also involves enabling users to effectively identify unsolicited offers and harmful content on the internet, protect their privacy, save them from virtual foibles, and avoid being the victim of cybercrimes.
Digital literacy is mainly based on two major aspects: one is access to digital devices and the other is the skills that allow people to use these tools to efficiently communicate, seek information, and solve problems. While the government has busted its hump to achieve impressive strides in the former aspect, it falls short of effort and oversight in the latter.
Two years back, the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) carried out a study styled "Digital Literacy in Rural Bangladesh”. The study portrayed pictures of the prevailing state of digital literacy in rural Bangladesh at that time. The report revealed that 96 percent of rural families owned a mobile phone, while a majority (59 percent) did not have access to a smartphone which is a prerequisite for availing of digital services.
The survey finds that rural households are still lagging as far as the adoption and use of e-services are concerned. This is because of a lack of proper access to information and communication technology (ICT) and the skills required to operate digital devices. It also exposed the fault line of the digital divide that still exists in the country.
Moving on to a recent survey conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Education Commission of Bangladesh only adds weight to the BIGD’s findings of worrying revelations of dismal digital literacy in the county. The research says that 84.9 percent of the youth, aged 15–24 years, lack the necessary digital skills. The report, Recovering Learning: Are Children and Youth on Track in Skills Development?, unveils that three-fourths of about 30.9 million youth of the age group in Bangladesh do not have the required digital skills, which refers to the ability at using and understanding technology and performing basic computer-related activities. This puts Bangladesh behind Bhutan, Sri Lanka and India but ahead of Nepal and Pakistan in South Asia.
Poor digital literacy has far-reaching consequences, which may not only impede individuals’ ability to flourish in today’s digitalised world but also affect an entire community or society. People typically could care less about the ramifications of their contentious tweets or their incendiary memes. Nowadays, employers, especially in developed states, look through candidates’ social media profiles and activities to get an idea about their work and life philosophies before giving precedence to prospective ones over others.
Some instances prove that improper online behaviour not just misrepresents one's social media self but has devastating consequences. Revoking, for instance, its acceptance offers by Harvard University to almost 10 potential students allegedly for posting insulting jokes regarding shootings on a private Facebook group made the news headlines a few years ago.
Inappropriate online or social media conduct arising out of ignorance regarding the dynamics of digital media sometimes leads to social unrest, engulfing the entire community. A recent arson and vandalism centring a Facebook post at a village in Narail district in excuse of hurting religious sentiment is a case in point. In the past, incidents happened along the same lines in Brahmanbaria and Rangpur in 2017 and Ramu of Cox’s Bazar in 2012. The worst part of such incidents is that innocent people are always on the receiving end of someone else’s idiocy.
There is no denying that some people become judicious by overly pondering before posting on social media. But then, there are an overwhelming number of people who do not give a hoot about privacy and security, and vicariously share and react to whatever they come across on digital media. This lackadaisical attitude develops as they hardly consider the authenticity of social media content and treat them just as those of established mainstream media, where contents usually go through fact-checking and editorial gatekeeping before making it public.
Privacy is an indispensable component of internet literacy. In absence of awareness about personal data privacy, a section of digital media users, especially young people, is often seen publishing “too much information” on virtual media. Data suggests that young girls, many of whom are unaware of the risks of leaking sensitive information online, bear the brunt of digital naivety.
We know, owing to the way it bars media activists and many others from speaking out, section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act has come in for fierce criticism. Nevertheless, the public prosecutor of the Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka claimed to have found that more than 75 percent of the complaints under this law were registered by teenage girls. Majority of them file cases accusing their ex-boyfriends or people from the community of cybercrime such as posting compromising pictures of them online without their consent.
Going by the way problems related to internet illiteracy are cropping up every now and then, it is plain to see that only digitally literate denizens having access to ICT devices could help the situation. The issue of making common citizens of the country digitally educated is long overdue. More and more countries across the globe are taking initiatives by conducting research to help their citizens become more literate online. Regrettably, Bangladesh is nowhere near when it comes to doing high-level research in this area, although a few private universities are reported to have launched relevant projects for their students to impart digital literacy, which others should follow suit.
The authorities and the policymakers should act now to sagaciously design innovative interventions, which will pave the way for making information technology and connectivity available across every rural community to close the existing inequalities.
The introduction of a mandatory specialised course with all-encompassing materials related to digital learning at all educational levels could probably do wonders to infuse learning of digital literacy in youth generations. For common people, spreading awareness is the key. Therefore, responsible agencies must swing into action to make people more aware. The earlier the necessary measures are taken, the better.