While I was pregnant with my daughter who is one year old now, my husband and I went to watch a film. Each time I looked at my husband during the film, I caught a glimpse of the couple sitting next to him, and their toddler son. The father was trying to focus on the film, controlling his son, and keeping him engaged with a video or a game on his mobile phone.
On our way back home, my husband and I had a chat and decided we wouldn't use digital devices to pacify our child. Well, like most perfect decisions that parents-to-be make, this one, too, has not really worked out. For instance, just the other day, when my daughter threw an uncontrollable tantrum, we pacified her, or rather entertained her, with Talking Tom who mimicked all her babbles. The tantrum disappeared into thin air and made way for loud chuckles.
This was a sign. A sign that very soon our smartphones would end up being a babysitter—be it at home, or on a long drive or at the film theatre. Today's children belong to the digital world. Unlike us, who have learnt our way through evolving technology, our children are being born right into the midst of it.
That said, these young masters of technology are clueless about the dangers that lurk in the shadows of the virtual world, be it privacy issues, malicious websites and apps, child pornography, and social networking dangers. Let us learn to watch out for possible risks, and let our children become responsible digital citizens.
1. Choose an appropriate device and internet plan: Identify what kind of device you should hand over to your children. As much as possible, try to delay your child's first mobile phone. This step will also keep the young ones from radiation emitted by these devices. Studies suggest that kids are most vulnerable to radio frequency radiations from wireless devices. In fact, their skulls are thinner and so, radiation penetrates deeper. If, like me and many other adults around us, you decide to hand over your smartphone to pacify your toddler, it would be a good idea to switch to flight mode. Also identify the amount of data usage by the family, and choose a suitable internet plan.
2. Keep the device clean: By this, we mean you keep your devices safe from malware by updating anti-virus software, and keep your operating system updated. Various apps and parental control software also let you monitor your child's internet usage.
3. Implement digital curfew and tech-free zones: It is a good idea to set a digital curfew where you instruct the children to stay off digital devices and spend quality time with family. For instance, use this time to talk about your day, or about their school and friends. Also enforce tech-free zones where you are not allowed to use phones, laptops or computers. For example, no phones in the dining room or the bedroom.
4. Set an example: Recently, I asked two of my cousins—a 12th grader and her sister who is a final year medical student—why either of them were not on any social media platform. That is because they look up to their mother who is their role model; she isn't there on Facebook and has a perfectly good career and home. How much ever rules you impose at home, children look to you and often mimic your behaviour. Stop staring at the smartphone screen or laptop to kill time at home, stick to the digital zone rules, and spend time with your children. This is a two-way deal that will help both parents and children.
5. Keep a tab on privacy settings: Privacy settings often go unnoticed. Look at the privacy settings on social media and other apps that your children use. Take a call on what kind of privacy settings should be implemented for your child. Also, do not autosave passwords and credit/debit card numbers on the devices your children use. You do not want them accidentally buying things from e-commerce websites, or your little one buying extra gold coins or lives for that game she is playing.
6. Explain the situation: The internet is a great place to explore, learn and grow. Do not deny this to children. But, make it a point to explain to them the public nature of the internet, and how once you put something there, it is impossible to retrieve it. Let them know that whatever photo or personal info they share can be copied or manipulated. A recent awareness advertisement caught my eye. A teenager puts up a Facebook post in the morning. The moment she steps out of the house, she has all sorts of people—the watchman, uncle next door, and friends—asking her what she plans for the night. Creepy. She runs back home to delete her post which read: 'Folks going out. Home alone at night.' This sends across two messages—beware of what you post, and whom all you befriend on social media.
As parents, we too, owe our children their privacy. A family friend recently asked me if I would want to post my daughter's picture for a Facebook photo contest she saw some place. I cringed and told her never to do that. Let us be aware of dangers like child pornography and be careful when we proudly post photographs of our little ones.
Also, as toddlers grow into adolescents, rules changes and boundaries change and we need to give them their space. But be alert, know who their friends are—both offline and online.