Raising Cyber-Savvy Kids

Tuesday, 21.06.2016

Computers and children needn’t be like chalk and cheese: Parents, here’s how to stay aware, alert – and ahead when making that connection with your young ones.

It’s a fact: Children today are surrounded by all types of digital media from a very young age. Educators, parents and caregivers are left with the task of navigating through a multitude of handheld games, toys and online resources while debating the value of these different options. 

Fortunately, research shows that computers can play a positive role in the education of children. If incorporated appropriately into learning, the benefits include language, literacy and social development as well as the improvement of important problem-solving skills.

Experts and researchers in early childhood development offer the following guidelines for computer use by youngsters:

  • Stick to a firm time limit for computer use. The recommended time for pre-schoolers (3-5 years) is 20-30 minutes.
  • Computers should supplement – and not replace – activities and materials such as art, books, music, outdoor exploration, experimenting with writing materials, dramatic play, and socialising with other children.
  • To keep an eye on young children’s computer use, consider a family desktop computer or laptop that you can keep in a centralised location in your home.
  • Guide and be on hand to help your child, answer questions and interact with your child as she works on the computer.
  • Look for online games, resources and websites with fun and educational value. Some games allow young players to build and practise the critical skills needed to read, such as learning through phonics and letter identification. They can learn simple maths skills too, such as addition and subtraction.
  • Parents should help set up your child’s online account if needed, which you can access together in future in order to monitor your young ones’ activity on a particular site. You can give your kids a sense of ownership and responsibility by allowing them to choose their personal ID (identification) or username, and memorise their unique password for logging in purposes.

Precautionary Measures for Older Kids

These days, a child’s exposure to digital devices or anything with a screen can begin from infanthood. It’s no surprise then, that children grow up being less intimidated by the Internet and the mobile world that’s literally bursting at the seams with millions of apps available.

In 2012, Singapore had over 104 percent Internet penetration, making it one of the most connected countries in the world. However, being so easily digitally connected doesn’t necessarily translate to a natural and automatic understanding of the cyber world, and understandably, some parents may find themselves wary and protective of how their child is spending his time on the computer.

So how do you raise a smart gadget-savvy child while staying updated at the same time when it comes to decoding all this online lingo? This becomes increasingly challenging, especially as your children get older. Whether you choose to call it a new-, now-, or next-generation challenge, the fact remains that this modern parenting responsibility can begin from as early as “tween-hood” – usually defined as the period between middle childhood and adolescence, typically when a child is between 8-12 years old.

While it’s natural for kids to want to have private conversations, parents still need to know if they’re being cyberbullied, lured by strangers, or exposed to unacceptable behaviour such as sexting. This becomes more imperative especially when taking into account a 2012 cyberbullying study conducted by Microsoft, which found that Singapore has the second-highest rate globally of online bullying among children and youths between the ages of 8 and 17.

"The ease of access to technology may make cyberbullying more attractive to youths," says Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Dr Thomas Holt. "They have an almost immediate access to computers and smartphones, which might help to foster an environment that is more conducive for bullying behaviour."

However, completely denying your child access from the Internet or using any smart device is not only unrealistic but unsustainable as well in the long term. With Internet access available beyond desktop computers, parents need to make sure they’re staying informed about what apps their children are using and set guidelines on how the devices will be used. It is crucial that parents explain the rules of Internet safety to their children, as even being aware of the basics can prevent kids from exposing themselves and their parents to certain online risks.

Real Safety in Virtual Reality

So what can parents do to monitor their child’s virtual life without coming across as being too obtrusive or invasive? Here are some guidelines to observe for vigilant parents:

  1. Discuss the obvious dangers and not-so-subtle ones of the Internet with your children. Advise them to abstain from sharing their personal information with strangers during online interactions.
  2. Establish clear rules for phone/tablet/computer use, including location and time restraints (for example, a maximum of two hours online screen time daily spent on the shared family computer in the living room).
  3. Check regularly to ensure your kids are not downloading unknown files from file-sharing programmes or other dubious sources as these could contain spyware or other viruses. File sharing can allow other Internet users access to all of the files on your computer, which means that information like bank details and personal documents, can be stolen.
  4. Keep abreast of the latest computer monitoring software programmes and install one that is able to capture any keystrokes, or can monitor chats, instant messages, e-mails, website visits, Internet searches and any other programmes that are being run.
  5. Advise kids to refrain from certain online behaviours that could make them vulnerable: these include joining in cyberbullying, flaming, visiting adult sites.
  6. Let them know what kinds of apps and in-app purchases are permitted. Be careful that your children don’t end up making accidental online purchases especially if your bank account is linked to any of your profiles which you have either chosen to share with them or have simply forgotten to log out from. For instance, ensure that additional verification is required before any payment is confirmed.
  7. Enable the privacy settings on all devices and social media sites that your kids use. For additional ease-of-mind, you can also look into installing parental control software, and even block websites or search terms or words that you find inappropriate.
  8. Be open and available always. Reassure your children that it’s okay to approach you if they encounter anything online that they are unsure about, or which has made them feel uncomfortable or nervous.

Parents: Involve Yourself More Actively!

While it is also tempting for busy and strung-out parents to over-rely on electronic media for keeping their children occupied, try to set a fixed allocated period for unstructured playtime, with all devices kept away.

Here’s how:

  1. Set a good example about limiting tech time and your kids will be more likely to follow suit.
  2. Be a role model. Let the kids see you using your computer and phone to make your life easier, more efficient and more fun. Show how you're in control of these devices, not the other way around.
  3. Devise incentives that will help your kids have a more balanced schedule for leisure activities. Len Saunders, author of Keeping Kids Fit and a father of two, suggests that for every hour of physical activity, kids earn 30 minutes of tech time. You can also encourage your children to “rack up” their screen time by matching this with equal amounts of time for other activities such as reading, playing outdoors, helping with the housework and so on.
  4. Allow your kids to decide how they want to spend their allocated screen time. If only two hours are allowed every day, they might settle on one hour of television, followed by half-an-hour on the Internet, with the remaining 30 minutes spent at the Playstation console.
  5. Combine smartphone apps with fun outdoor activities such as Geocaching, which will require GPS. Or get your kids to snap photos of the great outdoors and edit them on a photo app that is age-appropriate. They can then upload their creatively manipulated snapshots on sites such as Instagram (you can choose to open a shared family account).

With the right guidance, your kids can have fun and still stay safe. The trick is not to outsmart smart technology, but rather, acknowledge its advantages when it is used correctly and not abused.

Accept that it’s all part and parcel of your child’s growing years and embrace the opportunity to guide them as they navigate the online and mobile worlds as part of learning and play. After all, there’s no better way to explore connectedness that to establish a loving and stable connection with your kids first!

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