For many of us as parents we grew up in a world with little or no online social media. Our children are growing up far more digitally literate than we ever were, or in some cases, are. They are born into a digital landscape all around them and it’s only natural that they automatically fit into this world. They are digital citizens, compared to their elders who are more like digital tourists.
That doesn’t mean they don’t need help and guidance. Just like a young child, you wouldn’t let them go out of your eyesight, or an older child who you wouldn’t let go off by themselves without some rules and guidance about where they can or can’t go. If you have older children, you probably expect them to be home by a certain time, you want to know who they’re with etc. The digital world should be no different and you need to know what they are doing and who with. They need to have rules to support their digital journeys and to help keep them safe.
The internet is so widely available and a part of so many areas of our lives, often referred to as the internet of things. We have become trusting of the connectedness and expect firewalls or anti-virus software to protect us. These in-built safeguards are there to support our use but it does not mean we can let our children roam freely. The same as big cities, they have security cameras and police, but again we wouldn’t let our young children go into the city by themselves.
It can be easy to dismiss the digital world as holding less worth, less credibility and less reality than the world we see around us because it is not physical and can be turned off. Today however, a significant number of people genuinely place digital interaction on a par (or even above) our physical world. It has reality too, maybe even one they prefer. Gaming, social media, news, chat, videos, streaming, music, literature, transactions, sharing, anonymity, friendships and so much more…all at the click of a mouse.
Most, if not all of us reading this article, grew up with the internet, social media and the modern digital world either non-existent in our lives, or in its infancy. We have been lucky enough to see it grow, develop and become what it is today. And we have therefore been given time to learn along with it. We have appropriate context. We remember what it was like before. Our children do not and will not have this context. They were born into and are growing up in a world which to them has always had this digital element. They lack the context and therefore have to learn about it from us.
It can be easy to look down on gaming, social media and many features associated with the internet as negative influences. However, this is not an effective or supportive way to view the opportunity to embrace technology and the benefits it can bring. A growing body of research suggests that allowing your child to appropriately and contextually access these kinds of things means they will actually develop skills which will benefit their development and support them in their future. The internet is not going away and will just develop more. Our children will be the ones shaping its future.
#1 Appropriate. What is right and wrong for their age?
#2 Context. Think about what they are doing and why they might need to. It may not make sense to you but it probably does to them, but not always.
#3 Guided. Children will instinctively find things themselves but may well come across information that is not appropriate, in any context. Don’t just leave children to discover unaided. Guide their journey and help them do it safely.
#4 Safety. An important aspect which can be overlooked if not careful. Use the parent filters, apply safe search settings so the internet your child is exploring is less precarious. Children will click the flashing banners, so use disabling software and make sure your anti-virus is up to date.
#5 Independence. Just as you let your children grow and become more self-reliant, do the same with the internet, let them explore safely, have them show you what they are doing and what they can do.
As adults there are three main areas from which we can educate and inform our children about how to use this wealth of information at their fingertips properly; family, schools and the media. We can only control two of these three, and it is important we do so. We cannot just launch them into this digital world without guiding them through.
Monitoring their mobile phone, iPad or laptop etc. and having rules they must agree to when using them. Sitting down with them from a young age and allowing them to understand what being a responsible internet user means. Using lessons and an educational environment to go through positives, negatives and other factors which come with using digital platforms as well as encouraging independent, critical thought when processing any information.
This isn’t meant to cause alarm and parents who educate themselves and monitor, support and guide their children’s internet use have little to worry about. It is important however that we don’t just let our children wander freely, just the same as in the real world.
Ian Gross is the Principal at Kinabalu International School, Sabah, Malaysia and is currently studying for a Doctorate in Education through Bath University, UK.
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