Internet and technology are here to stay! Usually, this kind of tools are developed to help us becoming more efficient, better informed, to quickly communicate and to improve our lives. Taking precautionary measures when using them, like checking privacy and security, allows us to safely enjoy their benefits. It is unrealistic to try to be opposed to this flow and to live a totally disconnected life, both for adults and for children. Like any other aspect in our lives, yes, their use implies risks. But also driving a car, riding a bike, or taking the plane or the bus are not completely safe either. Therefore, we should better embrace the change and seek to obtain the maximum benefit from the digital environment, by educating adults and children and by implementing the most appropriate legal framework.
In this context, the International Conference on “Children’s Rights in the Digital Age: Should children be protected from screen exposure?”, that took place on 11th and 12th of May 2021, organised mainly by Centre Interfacultaire en droits de l’enfant (CIDE) – UNIGE in collaboration with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, reunited professionals, academics, UN representatives, local representatives, parents etc. and aimed to better explain the impact of screens on children, to sensitized to the fact that children are also holders of rights and not only potential victims, to highlight good practices based on sound scientific research to help adults guide the kids in the digital universe and to identify strategies for policy-making.
The goal of this paper is to draw attention to the key takeaways from the insightful discussions that took place during the conference about influence of digital on children’s lives.
In coaching children to become tomorrow’s responsible adults and high-level professionals, parents and educators play an important role in providing digital education. Today it is acknowledged that intuitive technical skills do not suffice for children to develop a positive digital footprint and take full advantage of their online presence. Thus, in the best interest of children, in order to achieve digital literacy, it is essential to scale up awareness about online safety and privacy and develop strong interpersonal skills, offline and online, from an early age.
It is already agreed that children will live as adults in a digital world, that we cannot even imagine, and that, today, they are being educated and prepared for jobs that will be created in the future with current tools and methods that are not adapted to their future needs. In this context, it is important to well-equip children to become professionals and humans of the future and to alert with regards to the necessity of a shift in mindset and behaviour.
We have already learnt that we need to teach children how to eat properly and exercise regularly in order to be healthy and how to sort out waste, recycling and to care for the environment to enjoy the resources of our planet on the long term. And they have embraced these perspectives, carrying for physical and mental health as well as striving to protect natural resources have naturally become indispensable among children’s discussions topics, as well as at school and with any other occasion, such as family or friends’ gatherings.
In the same way, we as adults, need to intentionally include conversations on the digital sphere in our kids’ education and to make it become part of our usual talks, gradually, by taking into consideration their evolving capacities. Since almost each area of our lives is being added a digital dimension, the pros and cons of using new technologies should be addressed with our children each time an activity might involve using them.
In addition, setting rules and boundaries for screen time just like we do for other aspects of our lives, such as hygiene, schedules, physical safety, helps normalise the topic by being smoothly integrated in our daily routines. Media should have a complementary role in our lives, not to substitute to it. It only depends on us how much power, influence and space time we want to allocate to it and to decide on the way we want to shape our time with or without media.
Adults should pay attention to the time and physical space devices occupy in the family, what is the impact of their constant use and online connection in relation to the people around them (poor communication, mediocre emotional engagement, inefficient multitasking) and to the type of activities for which they are being used (commercial, work, school, leisure, cultural etc.). Only once they are sufficiently aware about the role of their connected devices in their lives, they can control their excessive use and then teach children to balance digital and physical activities. Empowering kids to disconnect from the online environment allows them to rebalance, to enhance their creativity without media and thus to have a fulfilled life.
Paradoxically, even if screen time is generally perceived as dangerous, when we ask a child to keep us inform about the place where he/ she is or when we send uncounted messages to check on our child, that leads to him/ her regularly checking the phone (and not only our message) and thus to a sometimes-unnecessary increased screen time.
Finding the right balance between our concern to keep a certain control on our kids’ activity and screen time is not an easy task, but it is something we should all strive for. In addition, the large amount of data generated using parental control (where the phone is, the person is, at what hours, eventually with whom) is putting our children at risk. Media could be of huge help, but it could also cause trouble and conflict. This is why, critical thinking and conscious decisions regarding the use of digital are essential to endeavour to live a balanced life.
For example, do we really need to use an app to potty train or to teeth brush?! These are decisions that each family need to take in respect of their values, habits, culture and how they want to raise their children – no one fit all solution exists. But when it comes to reservation for lunch at the school canteen or online registration for a leisure activity the decision is easier to make and comes more naturally.
Furthermore, parents should talk about media also when they are not using it and not only when it became a problem. Talking only negatively about the use of digital and new technologies might create a false image in child’s perception and would prevent him/ her to fully benefit from its advantages.
At national level, states have already included in their education strategies the objective of teaching children, from an early age, digital education and computer sciences. Nevertheless, today the systems are not yet ready to train teachers in this respect. A few more years would be needed to implement digital education in schools. In the meantime, parents and caregivers should make efforts to self-educate themselves in order to be able to guide their kids when using new technologies.
On a different note, it is generally agreed that we need regulation to protect children while surfing online, but we also need to make use of ethics by requiring industry to undertake due-diligence and impact assessment of products and to take into consideration the best interest of the child while developing their products. Industry should be accountable and not take advantage of weakness of the children and their emotional immaturity when using persuasive techniques in app-purchases, for example.
Also, the civil society could contribute to support in reaching a certain level of digital awareness by providing guiding to parents and caregivers on how to safely use digital tools, conducting evaluation of games and platforms and issuing ethical labels, by introducing chapters in the parenting books dealing with consequences of sharing photos/ information about children and how to consciously decide whether to share or not online a piece of information, and how to restrict the group of people with whom information is being virtually exchanged. Just like in the physical world, in the virtual environment, all adults, irrespective of their status, should treat children like they would treat their own kids.
Therefore, the role of the parents, as first role-models, is essential in influencing children on how to appropriately engage with technology; by building kids’ digital awareness and critical thinking, we allow them to responsible use the digital technologies (capacity of self-determination): the kids should be able to control the technology and not the other way around. In addition, empowering children with the right to have a free-screen time (right to disconnect) could be achieved by supporting human interactions, balancing online activities with other physical, social, creative and learning activities.
Consequently, there is no one fit all solution in the media field: culture, education, personal convictions and values, family life options, country of living, school system, available means are some of the elements that shape kids’ digital education and behaviour. Balance is not always easy, but at the end of the day the invested time and energy to grow digitally informed and conscious adults will for sure set themselves apart and set themselves up for success.
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