When Apple brought out the iPhone in 2006 it changed the face of childhood. A 2021 study conducted by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights revealed that 59.2 per cent children in India use smartphones, while only 10.1 per cent use it for online learning and education. In a bid to study internet addiction amongst children in India, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the minister of state for electronics and IT, revealed that 23.8 per cent children use smartphones while in bed, and a significant 37.15 per cent have experienced reduced attentions spans as a result of this.
Internationally, the voices around curtailing access and use of smartphones for young children are growing louder and stronger. In an alarming remark in 2017, Mandy Saligari, an addiction expert in the UK, told Rachel Pells how giving a smartphone to your children is akin to giving them a gram of cocaine. Saligari highlights how unfiltered access to sexual content online and social media has normalized adult and even harmful behaviours in children such as sexting, dieting, and self-harm. Time spent messaging friends on Snapchat and Instagram can be just as dangerously addictive for teenagers as drugs and alcohol, and should be treated as such, school leaders and teachers were told at an education conference in London. Even three and four year olds consume an average of six and half hours of internet time per week, according to the broadcasting regulators Ofcom. So what is the solution—the right balance in bringing up children in a digital age? For starters, Saligari and Dr Richard Graham, a consultant psychiatrist at Nightingale Hospital Technology Addiction Lead, suggest digital curfews and greater emphasis on sleep. The internet can be a great resource for kids to read, especially in the absence of public libraries in a country like India. However, as parents, we have to also teach our children about the dangers of internet usage. There are numerous resources to guide you and your children as you explore the internet together, but here are some tips I found useful:
1. Ask your children to follow rules set for the family—digital curfews, no phones in bed—and teach them about malware, phishing, spam, and blocked content.
2. Teach children about the dangers of sharing personal information, passwords, and photographs online; the dangers of talking to strangers on social media; the futility of heated debates on social media platforms; privacy leaks and consent.
3. As parents, you should spend time online with your kids, giving them a chance to learn appropriate social media behaviour. Take them seriously when they report online incidents to you, and keep an eye out for any unusual bills related to internet usage, online shopping, etc.
(During) the pandemic…as learning, living, and working went online, preschoolers, tweens, teenagers, and parents were on screens for their classes and their work, and relaxing on their devices thereafter. For two years children have had to stay at home and spend more time on their phones during the lockdown than they did before. That has left many parents worried about what the ‘new normal’ will mean for future generations.
Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of Paediatrics at the University of Michigan, says parents today need to reframe their thinking about screens. Media use, she said, ‘has an opportunity to be remarkably different and really meaningful for families.’
‘It’s amazing watching my own first-grader communicate with his whole class every morning at 9.30 a.m. over Zoom,’ she says. ‘It’s a really meaningful way of using technology in the current context when children feel this loss of their school community.’ Jenny Radesky’s thread on screen time, made with suggestions from the American Academy of Pediatrics, is just as relevant today as it was during the pandemic:
1. As families reorganize their days to adjust to the COVID-19 situation, we urge parents to preserve offline experiences, which helps families connect emotionally, process difficult experiences, and heal.
2. Make a plan. Talk with your kids about what your daily structure will be, how you will handle stress, and when you will take breaks from tele-work or school work to relax and connect with each other.
3. Communicate with teachers about what educational online and offline activities your children should be doing.
4. Use social media for good. Check in with your neighbours, friends, and loved ones.
5. Be selective about viewing positive content, and use trusted sources to find it.
6. Use media together. This makes it easier to monitor what your older children are seeing online, follow what your children are learning, and relax together while you appreciate the storytelling and meaning that movies can bring.
7. Take your child (virtually) to work. Parents might also be asked to telecommute. While expectations may need to be adjusted, this is also a chance to show your kids a part of your world.
8. Find offline activities that help your family calm down and communicate—physical, creative, or playful. Create the space for family members to talk about their worries.
9. Parents—notice your own tech reactions. When you’re getting too sucked into news or social media feeds and it’s stressing you out, take a break.
10. Limits are still important. The same guidance applies about technology use not displacing sleep, physical activity, reading, reflective downtime, or family connection. Challenge your children to practise ‘tech self-control’ and turn off tech as adults.
Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Co, from Parenting in the Age of Anxiety by Abha Adams