Today more than ever before, we inhabit a world that is overrun by technology and digital solutions. Numerous statistics tell us that both grown-ups and children are spending more and more time poring over new technological devices. And this phenomenon is constantly on the rise, especially amongst children and youngsters.
Speaking from an educational point of view, there can be no doubt that teaching children to use digital devices in a safe and healthy manner is an absolute priority. Actually, it a topic that should be dealt with immediately. There is little else of such pressing urgency in a child's upbringing at the moment.
That's not because there is any cause for alarm, nor should we fall into the trap of believing that technology or the digital world only have a dark side. We just have to realise that, just as our children need to be taught to cross the road properly to stop them getting run over, they also need to learn rules about the digital world and to get familiar with it with grown-ups who know what they are doing. There is no getting away from it. The digital world is here to stay.
Gather information to build awareness
The first thing to do as adult educators is to find out exactly what risks and opportunities are inherent in technological and digital instruments.
Would you ever stick your children behind a steering wheel and tell them to drive without ever having given them a driving lesson? Would you ever put a knife in your child's hand without first explaining how to use it? The same thing applies to the digital world: have we ever asked ourselves as educators whether children are equipped to handle the damaging side effects of technology and able to seek out the opportunities?
Modern technology is a truly powerful tool which can provide human beings with immense benefits in many different ways. But it all depends how we use it. The means are not in themselves either good or bad. We are the ones who must be capable of unlocking their potential and using them in the right way. We are much more likely to hurt ourselves with an instrument when we are unfamiliar with it. So, if we want to instil the right attitude in our children, we must find out about the attendant risks and opportunities.
A good example
The next most important point to be held always in mind is that children and youngsters watch us all the time. This cannot be overstated. Children learn to walk, talk and use objects by observing adults. Clearly, the same rule applies to the use of digital instruments. We are the ones who teach them about screen healthy relationships. They will follow our example and understand how much time is “normal” to spend in front of a screen, or whether it is right for everyone to be caught up in their own pc, TV, tablet or smartphone during family time.
Have we ever tried watching ourselves or actually worked out just how much we adults spend in front of a screen? Have we set some clear dos and don'ts for the family so that screen time doesn’t spill over into relationship time? We must learn to manage the quality of time that our children spend in front of a screen (and before we do that, check our own time) as we accompany them in this fascinating journey into “virtual” life.
Never forget that children are keen observers. They notice and quickly pick up attitudes and words seen in grown-ups, assimilating them subconsciously. These same attitudes and words are highly likely to become part and parcel of their future behaviour.
Children and devices. Are they the true experts?
Another factor that must be borne in mind is that, as adults, we cannot just forbid our children to do things and label the digital phenomenon as superficial and harmful. Nor should we assume that simply because children know how to post stories or watch YouTube Kids videos on their own that this makes competent users out of them. All these devices and applications have been deliberately designed to be intuitive and user-friendly so we need to stop seeing children and youngsters as experts or “digital natives” with real skills. Given the era that they were born into, it is just a case of having always been used to interacting with electronic interfaces. Unlike adults, from a very early age both children and youngsters make no distinction between the digital and analogue world. As far as they are concerned, a smartphone or a tablet is an everyday tool like any other. They do not see it something that didn’t exist before, like we do.
That said, we must view new technology as an opportunity to boost cultural and social content during the learning process as well as being an interesting way to explore the world. It is absolutely crucial to understand that using a digital tool, such as social applications or messaging services can change the way we relate to the world, and therefore, improve the individual experiences and overall lives of our children and youngsters on a daily basis. However, scientific research clearly states that an indiscriminate usage of games and applications can lead to addiction. So, let's make sure that these devices do not negatively affect our children's social development or threaten their independence of thought, freedom and creativity. Rather they should introduce them to new points of view and research methods as they discover and learn about the world around them.
Up to the age of 5, the recommendation is that children spend no more than 1 hour in front of any kind of screen. This time should be spent watching educational top-quality content. Children should never be left alone in front of a screen. The grown-up should grab the chance to play and interact with the child because this will render the experience a time for positive learning and social interaction.
It is now a fact that children now acquire their own digital device at a very young age and use it without adult supervision. We recommend that parental controls always be enabled. A family filter is an excellent way to prevent children from viewing inappropriate contents.
On the other hand, any parental controls that one might set up will be decidedly ineffective for teens. It is very important to build up a sincere relationship with older children, encouraging them be responsible in general, but we must especially impress on them the fact that the internet must be used with prudence. A frank discussion about the kind of problems they could face is always a good idea.
When an online session is over, devices should be always switched off. This is especially relevant to children who mainly make a play-based use of devices. Leaving them on like a television kept in the background for company is a bad move. Even if children are engaged in interesting play activities, they can be easily distracted by voices and noises. Always keep in mind that our brain is wired to do one thing at a time!
It is always advisable to set daily screen-time limits, not because we want to punish children, but encourage them to learn to manage their online activities. And for family-focused times there should be a golden rule that applies to everyone - adults, children and youngsters. Whenever we are together, notifications on our devices should be disabled or the phone should be put in silent mode!
To sum up, the best piece of advice we can give to parents is to always be aware of the opportunities and dangers inherent in the digital world and on internet. This is the only way to get children to have a healthy attitude to technology!