JUST like most things in the realm of technology, it’s hard to classify Facebook as completely good or bad.However, in taking stock of both the good and the bad together, interesting discoveries can be made and government agencies such as the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) hope to use such insights to better formulate national policies to develop more Internet savvy Malaysian youth.
“It’s not just about dos and don’ts, but more in terms of how-tos because with the Internet and Facebook, the power is in their hands,” says Eneng Faridah Iskandar, senior director of outreach and engagement at MCMC.
“We want to stress here that prevention is better than enforcement. We can nip problems in the bud early through proper education because when the youth are taught to ensure that they are their authentic selves both online and offline, many negative issues can be avoided.”
MCMC has been working with Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) over the past few years to conduct research on the way that Malaysian youth between the ages of 18 to 22 have been using Facebook.
The study which is titled Captivated with Facebook: Constructions, Contexts and Consequences uncovered some interesting findings.
“The youth seemed to be quite balanced,” said Dr Shanthi Balraj Baboo, associate professor of new media design and technology from the School of Arts at USM. “They were not totally addicted to Facebook games and many of them felt that it’s a good way to relax.”
“Study and work was affected for some but not all of them. It is not something that we should confuse with being an addiction. But if they had a choice between going out to play or to meet somebody versus being on Facebook, quite a number said they would actually prefer Facebook.”
Friendly faces, difficult phases
Dr Shanthi’s research area focused how youth were using Facebook in three areas: communication, learning, and gaming and safety.
About 60% of the respondents said Facebook had helped them to be more extroverted (despite being shy in real life). Meanwhile, 72.1% said they often used the platform to gather the latest information including current news.
However, Dr Shanthi says many of the respondents highlighted that they faced difficulties in determining whether information they obtained from Facebook was trustworthy or otherwise.
“This was actually a difficult concept for them to develop because they couldn’t decide what they should or shouldn’t share, and whom to share with. Most were quite uncertain on how to do it,” she says.
The youth also admitted that emotions tended to run high while they were on Facebook, especially when they encountered rude comments or provocative language.
Another important discovery that was uncovered through Dr Shanti’s research was the fact that there was still a huge digital divide between youth residing in the rural areas as compared to those living in more urban locations.
Based on her experience, the Internet connection was “unstable”, especially in the parts of East Malaysia that her team visited.
“But it’s not just the physical infrastructure,” Dr Shanti adds. “We also found a lack of social infrastructure where even though they were given the equipment, it was not followed up with programs on how to use them.”
To Eneng, the issue stretches much further back than that. She feels that there first needs to be a demand created for Internet based services amongst rural communities.
“We have to create content that is rich that will make people want to connect,” she says. “It is not just a case of having the infrastructure and everybody will hop on. It’s also an issue of culture; whether it’s something they’re used to.”
Besides that, Dr Shanti says those she had encountered from the rural areas also lacked the knowledge and opportunities to develop skills required for online content creation.
However, she notes that even for those living in the cities, they were still a bit cautious about uploading original work of theirs onto Facebook.
“Maybe it could be a lack of self esteem but certain students like those from art or design backgrounds were also concerned that their creations could be copied by someone else.”
As a whole, Eneng says the research findings will come in handy for MCMC for it to decide on future improvements for its youth based programmes and policies.
“It’s a continuous learning process for us,” she says. “Out of 18.6mil Internet users in Malaysia, 84.2% are on Facebook.”
“The youngest user we have encountered was seven years old. This indicates how young we need to start reaching out to them. We want to encourage youth to experience the Internet in a way that is safe, fun and secure for everyone.”