child-using-computerThese days it seems that almost from birth, children are immersed in a digitally rich environment, from tablets to desktops and texting to social networks. Despite efforts to keep technology away from children, there is no way that any parent can stop it all from becoming part of a child’s life, or at least maybe at first, but not once they reach 5 or older. But if we step back a little bit, we can see that there are advantages to allowing some access to technology. Digital technologies have potential benefits in the areas of cognitive, social and physical development. They have huge appeal for children, and this can be harnessed to help children socialise, develop and learn. Kids who are old enough to swipe a screen can have access to the world.

But asking the question: “Is the Internet good or bad for our children?” is far too simplistic. It is like asking whether cars are better than walking: it depends on whether you’re looking for exercise or an emergency ride to the hospital. In the space of a few years, the Internet has allowed any classroom with a connection to serve as the amalgamation of the greatest libraries on Earth. It offers students approaches to learning through visual, aural and interactive media, and puts them in touch not only with local sources, but with information from all round the world. There are specialist programmes to teach everything these days, from basic writing and spelling to advanced mathematics. These can be used to support other teaching methods, or to introduce new ones.

Parents are often right to fear that children’s over-use of digital technology might result in physical problems such as obesity, social problems such as isolation, or psychological problems such as high levels of aggression. There are also, of course, the risks associated with online activities and fears from parents and educators about children’s online safety. The issue of a digital divide, where parents who have not grown up with such a plethora of technology have little or no idea what their children are doing online, means that children may be using technology in ways unfamiliar to adults, making it increasingly difficult to protect them.

However, simply restricting your child’s access to the online world, or adding security controls won’t offer all the protection they need. The threat is out there, but it is less than a face-to-face threat and children are commonly able to find ways of dealing with it. It can be argued that we need to equip children with the skills and knowledge to avoid these risks and become responsible digital children.

There are laws in place in different countries, designed to keep anyone from getting a child’s personal information without a parent knowing about it and agreeing to it first. Laws also prohibit a site from requiring a child to provide more personal information than necessary to play a game or participate in a contest. But even with these laws, your children’s best online protection is you. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Bookmark kids’ favourite sites for easy access.
  • Spend time online together to teach your kids appropriate online behaviour.
  • Share an email or social media account with your child so you can monitor messages.
  • Set up some guidelines for your kids to use while they’re online, such as never posting personal photos or personal details, and if your child has a new “friend,” insist on being “introduced” online to that friend.
  • Take your child seriously if he or she reports an uncomfortable online exchange.
  • And make sure your kids create a screen name to protect their real identity.

Taking an active role in your kids’ internet activities will help ensure that they benefit from the wealth of valuable information it offers without being exposed to any potential dangers.

Whether you are a digital optimist or pessimist, it’s obvious that while technology brings about opportunities, it also has associated risks. The impact of heavy media and technology use on kids’ social, emotional and cognitive development is only beginning to be studied, and the emergent results are quite serious. While the research is still in its early stages, it suggests that the Internet may actually be changing how our brains work. Too much multimedia content has been linked in some kids to limited attention span, lower comprehension, poor focus, greater risk for depression and diminished long-term memory. This has led to some paediatricians, psychiatrists and psychologists arguing that parents should limit young children’s use of, and exposure to, new digital technologies. But is this really the answer? Is simply restricting children’s access actually the best way to ensure their safety?

There is plenty about the internet which is positive, although as parents we tend to focus on the negative and worry about the ‘terrors’ of going online. It has been convincingly argued that access to the Internet should count as a fundamental human right. As parents we must stay in tune with our children to monitor and support their online activities.