Originally published in The News on Sunday on June 19, 2022
Today, many children are growing up as digital natives; individuals for whom digital technology, the internet and connected information and entertainment platforms are simply an extension of their lives. For babies growing up in middle- and upper-class Pakistani households, mobile phones, tablets and internet-based games and applications are as much a life skill as walking and talking. Parents of young children can testify to the almost instinctual nature of digital learning for young children, with babies as young as two able to choose between favourite nursery rhymes and videos on YouTube.
The integration of digital technology as a part of real lives often makes virtual interactions as ‘real’ for these children. Friendships formed online, connections made, comments received on social media posts all impact children’s identities and sense of worth. While the technology places the world in the hands of children and young adults, it also exposes them to various threats. Unfortunately, parents, who bring in ‘real world’ experience to guide children’s growth in the physical spaces, often lack the same experience and expertise when it comes to cyberspace. Cyber bullying, grooming, sexual exploitation, digital violence, privacy and safety concerns etc are not well understood.
In Pakistan, especially, parents, teachers and other guardians often take an all or nothing approach, seeing technological exposure itself as a threat as soon as potential harms are highlighted. We see calls for ‘banning and blocking’ of certain platforms as a way to protect children. On Facebook, mothering and parenting groups are full of concerned mothers lamenting the negative exposure children are getting from technology. But these alarmist and restrictive approaches fail to acknowledge the reality of today’s world in which technological exposure is inevitable and technical expertise is essential for growth, development and success.
How then can we protect our children who need to be on platforms that also make them so vulnerable? To ensure children’s safety online, it is essential for parents and other guardians to take an informed approach.
First, educating ourselves about prevalent digital threats and fighting one’s technology phobia is essential. Without using different tech platforms and understanding the nature of information that flows through these platforms and interactions that are facilitated by it, one can’t effectively guide and support one’s children to navigate these spaces. Technology requires immersive learning – without direct interaction and experience, it is not possible to fully comprehend how different tech platforms and services behave. Whether it is Snapchat or TikTok or interactive gaming like Playstation or PUBG, unless you know how it works, you can’t help your children understand the risks it may pose to their safety and mental health. This doesn’t mean that parents need to become active, involved users of each platform their children use. They simply need to know how it operates, what features it offers and how their own children are using it.
Secondly, parenting for the virtual world needs to be as involved as parenting for the physical one. Children need to ask for permission or at the least inform their guardians before going out somewhere, meeting new people and taking up new activities. Downloading new applications, creating new accounts on digital platforms and engaging with new peer groups all technically pose similar safety risks. Thus, pro-actively using parental controls to ensure that children’s use of the internet is limited to websites, applications and services that are child friendly is essential. This may be as simple as ensuring that your child is using YouTube Kids instead of the regular version of YouTube. Or, it may require more continuous effort like sitting with them as they research something for a school assignment. The internet is a repository of information that is not neatly sorted into child friendly categories. Thus, active involvement is essential for ensuring children’s digital safety. That is to say, it is not enough to have a generic understanding of digital platforms and digital safety; it is essential to have a deep understanding of how your own children are using the internet. At young ages, children’s use should be closely monitored. As they grow and need more privacy, they also need clear discussions on expectations, boundaries and threats. Knowing who your children are engaging with online is important. New friends, with anonymous names, or those who suddenly seem to be taking a lot of your child’s attention and time warrant a closer look to ensure that your child is not unknowingly engaging with a criminal intent or violent influence.
Finally, taking a safety focused, child centric approach can help parents navigate more tricky situations. A child centric approach is centred on understanding individual children and engaging them in conversations about digital safety. Mental health issues arising from continued exposure to social media or cyber bullying can only be tackled by working on the child’s own sense of worth and identity. The internet has changed the norms of the world. A lot of information and content that would not have been considered child appropriate is now so openly available that it is simply impossible for anyone to curtail its spread. This means that parents of digital natives need to develop their children’s own capacities to make risk assessments at times. One of the biggest threats that children face online is that of grooming and sexual exploitation. This threat simply cannot be tackled by a technical approach – you can’t easily identify and block child groomers. These threats are dynamic and plug into children’s own needs for connection and identity. Sexual predators who target children online operate by creating a sense of dependency; they create trust for themselves while simultaneously exploiting the child to believe that their own family and friends do not understand them the way they do. This modus operandi can best be countered by ensuring that your child is not just aware of this danger but also knows that they can turn to adults in their lives. Sexual exploitation is a taboo and a sensitive topic in our culture, and parents often completely avoid educating their children about it. However, this willful silence is a dangerous strategy in a world where children can easily turn to the web to satisfy their natural curiosity.
Having ongoing open conversations with the children on sensitive and often awkward topics may not immediately seem to be a digital safety tip. But remember, technologies change very quickly; threats take new shapes and forms and often, it is only the ability to assess risk and belief in family support that can help children navigate cyberspace safety.