Nurturing the little ones towards a healthy digital environment
The internet is an increasing aspect of today's culture, especially for children and youth, for whom online gaming, school assignments, and social networking are among the most popular activities. The virtual space, without doubt, can be a wonderful part of a child's progressive growth. Interactive websites, educational videos, and brain games help children learn to solve problems as they work their way through the challenges presented to reach the next level. In fact, simply using the devices makes them think creatively while learning to solve minor issues such as programme malfunctions.
Despite the admirable advantages provided with internet usage, does spending a considerable amount of time on the internet affect children's development? Do they become socially isolated? Does school performance suffer or improve?
To find the answer to these questions, we must think from a broader perspective. In this world that depends vastly on the internet, we live through infinitely complex virtual networks, barely able to trace where our information is coming from and going. This uncertainty and dependency pose serious risks not only to our lives but also to the lives of our children.
According to a joint report drafted by UNICEF and International Telecommunication Union (ITU), globally, 33 per cent of children and young people have internet access at home. With this kind of exposure, the internet can turn out to be a dangerous platform for children and teens. From cyber predators to trivial social media posts that can come back to haunt them later in life, online hazards can have traumatising and tragic consequences.
In addition to that, very often, children may naively expose the private data of themselves and their families to internet threats. For instance, they may accidentally download malware that could give cybercriminals access to their parent's bank accounts or other sensitive information. Under such circumstances, protecting children on the internet is a matter of urgency.
On February 8, 2022, the world will celebrate the 19th edition of Safer Internet Day. It is an opportunity for everyone to recognise the importance of staying safe online. Featuring a theme of 'Together for a Better Internet,' the Day will call upon all stakeholders to join together towards making the internet a safer and better place for all, especially for children and young people.
With a view of familiarising parents, guardians, and educators about the ongoing persistent issue, Safer Internet Day encourages everyone to play their part in fostering supportive relationships and respectful communities online. The Day empowers young people to help create a better internet for everyone. From discussing the ways the internet can be used to communicate in creating constructive change in online groups when bullying behaviours arise, Safer Internet Day comes as a reminder about the massive role we play in making cyberspace a safer place.
It is needless to say that the internet puts the world at children's fingertips. Whether they laugh at their favourite shows or shudder at the latest news, everything is just a click away. Therefore, it has become of utmost importance to actively start working on crating a safe and secured digital environment for our children.
However, simply restricting or minimising internet usage will not be healthy and sustainable in the long run. We often hear so much about the threats associated with children using the internet. But we do not hear much about how we can build their online resilience with safe digital skills. We should help children navigate how to use the internet in the same way we help teach children how to cross the road. Instead of preventing children from crossing the road just because it poses dangers, we must teach them to cross the road safely and responsibly in all situations.
Learning how to navigate the online world, even if sometimes it means being exposed to a certain level of risk, will help children grow up in a connected world safely. On the contrary, If we become too restrictive, this might leave our children unprepared for the future.
The most important thing is that adults have to be readily available and prepared to support children when they need it. The most significant safety measure is open communication with the children.
There is no single rule book for securing cyberspace. So, teaching the exchange of good digital practices in young children at schools can help solve numerous future problems. Moreover, given the different levels of development across the world, collective action in capacity building is of paramount importance in accelerating the emergence of a safe digital environment.
Today, connecting with others is more important than ever in the pandemic-stricken world. This can be an ideal opportunity for us to model kindness and empathy in children with their 'virtual interactions.' We should utilise the opportunities provided by Safer Internet Day and start creating prospects for our future generation to have safe and positive online interactions.
Dr. Shivananda CS, Principal, DPS STS School, Dhaka.