Every day, we are presented with cautionary tales, fast facts, anecdotal accounts or developing data around the impact of the internet on our children’s growing and developing brains. Research is being conducted in every corner of the globe; educators across learning cohorts as well as parents in diverse neighbourhoods share their observations and mounting dilemmas and yet we hover, pretty none-the-wiser, questioning what this all really means now, and certainly what this will transpire to mean in the future.
Our children know no different – they respond intuitively, fluidly and favourably as they engage with their online connections. They slide into websites, swing through their social media profiles, bounce along their browsers and grow strong and brave as they ramble in and out of text messages; they clamber up to reach the Cloud, or chase their friends (or foe) through new terrain, arriving exhausted and spent at the end of the day having navigated their digital playground, sometimes struggling to settle their minds and find a calm inner peace.
Whilst our children’s interactions may be plentiful and immediate, they also are often solitary, scary and senseless. And just like any typical playground, if children don’t have the sensibility, sass and skills to play appropriately, astutely and responsibly, then they run the risk of getting into trouble. The digital playgrounds present us, the oldies, with new-found panic and anguish because the playground and the players are not visible, nor are they a space where we can easily mark firm boundaries and clear rules.
So, then, you may be asking what can we do to keep our children safe?
Perhaps the answer to this needs to be cut to fit the nature, age, stage and aptitude of each child – there is no one-size fits all solution. No child’s encounters are the same; as his thumbprint will differ, so will his traverses and meanderings diverge from his best friend, his brother or mother.
Some helpful tips that may assist you to supervise these playtimes:
- Have conversations openly and honestly with your children – share your fears, your hopes and your own experiences with them. Allow the chats to be ordinary, regular and true. Listen to your child, hear what they have to say, too.
- Knowledge is your best chance of making your child’s experiences safe and satisfying – give them the chance to inquire, ask and probe in bite-size pieces, so that the answers can be delivered carefully and mindfully, or researched collaboratively.
- Model the behaviours and habits you want your child to adopt – when, where, how long, and why you are logged on are critical messages that your child will internalise without you having to do much more. This is where you can establish firm rules that apply to the whole family.
- Be with your child and in close proximity to their encounters – discourage their connections being made behind closed doors, or away from your gaze. You can monitor their responses and their curiosity from a safe distance, allowing their devices to be used in public spaces only.
- Their digital playtime needs to demonstrate the same values and expectations you would have of them in the local park – cautionary, time-restricted, respectful of others, visible and compliant. And when you sound the warning that in five minutes it is ‘home time’, then there is an understanding that it is time to wrap things up, rather than start something new.
- As these playgrounds do not demand physical expenditure, an agreement might be agreed to that for every minute spent on a device, a minute is spent exercising each day.
- Devices and screen time are not substitute babysitters, mentors or playmates. There is nothing more important than the real-time, interpersonal connection we will only enjoy and benefit from when we are able to sit next to, hug, or attend to one another.
Remember, technology is not all bad, and there is no escaping it. What we need to do is find a way forward so that it works in our favour, helps to grow our children’s minds, not deplete them; use technology so that it generates connection and curiosity, not cultivates aloneness and anguish.
Like all playgrounds, we need to supervise the play, measure the risks, and guide our children to develop a sense of self-reliance and regulation. Keep in mind that a family game of basketball or cricket is way more memorable than sliding down a slippery-dip alone. Be with your children, that’s when you can best keep them safe.
About the author
Cathy Milwidsky is the Director of Early Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW