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Parents, the balance between children’s offline and online worlds is a tricky one

Digital technology and children: a touchy subject, if there ever was one. But Teodor Reljic discovers that, while one-size-fits-all solutions may not be an option for parents and educators, remaining vigilant should be an obligation

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
1 December 2017, 8:15am
An old African proverb would have it that, “It takes a village to raise a child”. It speaks to the reality that a child requires a varied exposure to life in order to take in its full richness and come to a complete-as-possible understanding about what awaits them out there, in the wider world, once the time comes for them to take their initial steps outside the homestead to interact with their peers and superiors.

The nugget-wisdom of the proverb would have it that the collective experience of the ‘village elders’ is ultimately what will help the child along, and if everyone contributes to the kid’s development, it becomes something of a “more, the merrier” scenario.

Now, one can see how this would apply when it comes to abstract values a community may wish to pass on... even, perhaps, certain practical tips that would turn out to be handy despite the contextual circumstances the kid may have popped up in.

But what happens when the technology which rings the child’s existence – and that of its parents, too – is too recent to have been processed and mashed together into habits by said ‘village’? To wit: how should parents, teachers, and the kids themselves be expected to deal with the onslaught of internet-enhanced digital technology, whose very nature is by definition hard to trap and control (as any high-end creative content provider would tell you if you bring up the pesky matter of online piracy and illegal downloads)? Especially given how we haven’t even grasped its full implications ourselves. Especially given that the terrain keeps shifting with each new groundbreaking gadget, with each new system-rearranging ‘upgrade’...

No easy solutions

While the fretting about of just how much of a toxic influence technology can have on children is nothing new – worries over television usage have spilled into worries about video games, and so on and so forth, in the past – the added layers of both interactivity and pedagogical necessity have served to complicate matters further in this day and age.

The ease of access to a blinding array of media will of course make parents jittery by proxy, but the very same facility can also serve as a handy teaching tool – or at least, as a way to enhance already-in-place educational mechanisms – as has, in fact, been put into action in a very clear way once the Ministry of Education decided to put digital tablets in the hands of school kids.

Given this scenario, we felt it best to try to get a long-view on the matter, and so we spoke to a couple of academics with an interest in the matter and some clear ideas about what the healthiest way forward should be; for parents, teachers as well as the kids themselves.

We could sum up their response from now, but it won’t please those looking for an easy answer to the question of, “How can we make sure kids aren’t damaged by their exposure to newfangled technological innovations?”

Unfortunately, it’s all best summed up with, “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.”

Respect the differences

In fact, Prof. Charles L. Mifsud, Director of the Centre for Literacy at the University of Malta, stresses that, “Your child may be ready [to be exposed to digital technology] sooner or later, depending on their abilities and the level of supervision required,” while Loreen Farrugia – a PhD researcher focusing on pre-adolescents’ social representations of risks in new media technologies – states that, “There are different factors that need to be taken into consideration”.

“The child’s interests and approach towards technology, the family’s situation, type of mediation employed by the parents and the cultural background could all have a role in how the children engage with technology,” Farrugia, who is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Maltese Safer Internet Centre BeSmartOnline!, adds.

Nevertheless, there are some iron-clad rules that one can follow.

A hard balance

When it comes to the role these technologies have on the educational process, Prof. Mifsud believes that quality is what will make all the difference. Stating that the Centre for Literacy is putting its efforts into offering guidance to parents and teachers about how to use age-appropriate apps and to take into consideration the abilities and the interests of the child, Mifsud adds that they would also be “guided... to choose apps which are rated highly by educators and parents, both in terms of their graphics, literary appeal and educational value.”

Another important aspect of the process is the necessity of sharing the process with the young child rather than simply allowing them to passively consume the apps in question. In the case of a story-based app, to mention one example, Mifsud recommends “talking to the child and asking them about the story, all the while pointing out different aspects of the content”.

Similarly, though speaking in a broader context, Farrugia claims that the changing pedagogical landscape poses a concrete challenge to parents and teachers – namely, that a balance must be struck between “over-reliance on such devices on one hand and treating them as mere cosmetic enhancements on the other”.

“Using technology in the classroom cannot replace the teacher and the education process. These, together with the interaction with classmates remain important elements in the child’s learning. We must strive to integrate technology as a fundamental part of the child’s education while also keeping in mind the individual child’s interests, needs and background,” Farrugia adds.

The dangers are real, as are the benefits

As my conversations with both Prof. Charles L. Mifsud and Loreen Farrugia go on, it becomes increasingly clear that we need to focus not on the ‘what’ of these new technologies and how they relate to our children’s development, but on ‘how’ they attempt to do so.

This means accepting that the progress of these things will be fast and fluid, and that we need to remain vigilant with regard to the latest updates, and mindful about how they will be applied. Farrugia, for example, is keen to keep an eye on the emergence of “smart toys” – which come with readymade internet accessibility and so pose an immediate privacy concern – but is also quick to point out how, instead of allowing “media panics” to dictate their actions, parents and educators should be encouraged to find pro-active ways with which to reap the very real pedagogical benefits these devices also present.

“There are way too many opportunities that children would miss if they are not online, and parents need to have enough support themselves to be able to help their children navigate the online world.”

Similarly, Prof. Mifsud stresses that every single educational component emerging from a digital device will need to be matched by a ‘real-world’ counterpart in order for it to be effective.

“Media-free times together with parents should be designated for children... the real world is a very important place for children to develop cognitive, social and language skills,” he states.

On this, however, Farrugia believes that while the “balance between online and offline activities might also be tricky to achieve… in general, having adequate critical media literacy skills is key for parents, educators and the children themselves”.

It’s not going to be easy, but it has to be done.

The village certainly has its work cut out.

DO’S AND DONT’S
  • Children younger than 18 months should avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting
  • Children under two years of age learn best from real-world experiences and interactions
  • Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they are watching
  • For children aged 2 to 5 years, screen use should be limited to 1 hour per day of high-quality programmes


Source:  American Pediatric Association

QUESTIONS FOR PARENTS
  • Is my child physically healthy and sleeping enough?
  • Is my child connecting socially with family and friends (in any form)?
  • Is my child engaged with and achieving in school?
  • Is my child pursuing interests and hobbies (in any form)?
  • Is my child having fun and learning in the use of digital media?


Source: Blum-Ross, A. and S. Livingstone (2016) Families and screen time: Current advice and emerging research. Media Policy Brief 17. London: Media Policy Project, London School of Economics and Political Science.

This article was developed from ‘Growing up in the digital age’ – a feature originally published in THINK Magazine

 

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Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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