As digital platforms grow, so does the parents’ concern related to the content that children are exposed to and the time they spend online. The digital world is full of problems and lurking dangers, but it also offers children access to useful information, knowledge, connections. How much is too much? Does the Internet offer more good or bad things to children? Does the digital world create or reflect social inequalities?
According to the Children of Europe on the Internet research, school kids in Serbia spend on average more than three hours a day on the Internet, while two thirds of them spend between four and seven hours online on weekends. According to the results of this research, children use the Internet primarily for entertainment and communication. The research also shows that in 2019, more than two thirds of children and young people had a profile on a social network or platform, including children under the age of 13, which is usually the minimum age allowed by social networks.
Dangers on the Internet
Every child who is present in the digital world is to some extent at risk of various dangers lurking on the Internet. UNICEF research shows that those most at risk will be more often exposed to these dangers. Experts say that smartphones encourage “a culture of bedroom with internet access” which for many children is a more personal, private space and also a space under less and less parental supervision. The authors of the study identify several risks children face on the Internet:
- Content risks: “This may relate to sexual, pornographic and violent images, certain forms of advertising, racist and discriminatory materials and materials containing hate speech, websites that promote unhealthy or dangerous behaviours, e.g. self-harm, suicide and starvation.”
- Contact risks: “They occur in cases when a child engages in risky communication, for example, with an adult seeking an inappropriate relationship or a child for sexual purposes, or with individuals who seek to radicalize a child and persuade him or her to engage in unhealthy and dangerous behaviours.”
- Behavioural risks: “They occur in cases when a child behaves in a certain way that contributes to the creation of risky content or relationships, and includes materials created by the children themselves”, as the study states.
Opportunities and inequalities
Although there are numerous dangers threatening children on the Internet and social networks, digital technologies also bring numerous opportunities for children to learn and educate. According to the authors of the study that analyses children’s use of the Internet, this is especially visible in remote regions and during humanitarian crises, when the Internet provides children with access to information on issues that affect their communities and can help them solve problems.
Yet the digital world also creates inequalities, as it reproduces those that already exist. Children from more vulnerable groups more often do not have access to the Internet, or quality equipment and connection, have fewer opportunities to use quality content in other languages and miss a number of content and opportunities that their peers have:
“Children who currently don’t have access to the Internet miss out on rich educational resources, access to global information and opportunities to learn in the online world; they also give up the different ways in which they can make new friendships and express themselves personally. For disadvantaged children, such as children with disabilities, access to the Internet can make a big difference, as it provides them with equal opportunities instead of marginalization. “It can provide migrant children with safer travel and a chance to stay in touch with their family members, i.e. better opportunities to find work and education in a foreign country”, the UNICEF study states.
What can parents do to protect their children?
The Internet is causing growing concern for parents and educators because of all its contradictions. This is especially unsurprising given the fact that every third child goes through a disturbing experience on the Internet, but also that the devices that children use for entertainment, information and social networks at the same time collect data about children.
The authors of the study on children in the digital world state that the question of whether and how much children benefit from digital experiences is related to their starting points in life: “While children with strong social and family relationships are likely to use the Internet to strengthen these relationships (which leads to an improvement in their well-being), children who, for example, experience loneliness, stress, depression or problems at home may find that the Internet connects some of these difficulties. In contrast, children who struggle with their social life offline can sometimes develop friendships and receive social support online that they do not receive anywhere else.”
Although the question of how much time children spend on the Internet is out-dated, experts say that the question “how much is too much” should be answered in accordance with the child’s age, their individual traits and the wider social context in which a child lives: Parents and teachers should not limit the use of digital media to children, but instead enable them to get the most out of the connection by means of careful mediation and support, and help them be exposed to as little risks as possible. More attention should be paid to the content that children are exposed to and children’s activities (what they do online and why), and less to how much time children spend in front of the screen.
Therefore, according to experts, parents should ensure the opportunity of enjoying digital rights to their children, without posing restrictions on the use of the Internet, but at the same time ensure their safety and educate children how to recognize harmful content on the Internet, how to protect themselves and how to use the Internet for education, and not just fun.
Translation: Iskra Krstić
This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on Sep 20, 2021.