With the recent burst in technology use across various demographics including children, it is expected that various aspects of the users’ lives will be affected. Accordingly, policy discourse has largely focused on ensuring that children are protected from harmful content, violence, and exploitation as they utilize this technology. The current gaps in knowledge regarding online lives of children, particularly in relation to the impact of technology on their social emotional development, cognition and learning, has made it difficult to come up with proactive policies in addressing the aforementioned risks while making the most out of technology.
One of the most efficient means of ensuring this is by limiting the use of technology, social media, and certain websites for children below the age of 13. This research paper will discuss the risks that children are exposed to on the internet and subsequently demonstrate that limiting children’s access to technology, social media, and certain websites can be effective in eliminating these risks.
The easy access to technological tools and devices have made it easier than ever before for sex offenders, traffickers, bullies, and other malicious characters to harm children.
Indeed, digital connectivity has exposed millions of children across the globe to various forms of harm through the ever-growing number of unprotected gaming and socializing forums. Essentially, these forums enable malicious actors to remain anonymous, effectively reducing the probability of their identification and subsequent prosecution. This implies that children are not safe in online environments.
There are three major categories of risks that children are exposed to while in online environments. These are content, conduct and contact. Content risks are those that face children upon exposure to inappropriate and unwelcoming content. This content may take the form of violent images, pornographic material, sexual materials, racist advertising, discriminatory advertising, and hate-speech. It may also involve websites that advocate for dangerous and unhealthy habits such as anorexia, self-harm and suicide. On the other hand, conduct risks refers to situations where children act in a manner that contributes to dangerous contact or content. This may take the form of creating or writing hateful material, posting or distributing sexual content and inciting racism or discrimination. Finally, contact risks are those that face children when they are involved in dangerous communication. For instance, a child may be involved in communication with an adult who seeks to solicit sexual favors or inappropriate contact. This may also take the form of radicalizing or persuading children to take part in dangerous or unhealthy behaviors.
Table showing the typology of harms that children are exposed to in the online environment.
Other harms that children are exposed to in online environments are restricted to the use of technological devices/gadgets, principal of which is attention deficit. ADHD is a mental problem characterized by challenges in paying attention, difficulty in controlling dangerous behavior, and excess activity. This may happen in children, leaving them unable to focus and rendering them restless; changes in behavior that may result in problems both at home and at school. Similarly, children may develop anxiety owing to the kind of information they are exposed to in the online environment. Essentially, their reaction to current or future events may leave them anxious to the point that they develop nervousness, fear, and aggression, particularly when they cannot get online. This feeling then disappears as soon as the devices are given back. Finally, children may also be exposed to depression, a mental illness that also negatively impacts their behavior. In fact, Kardefelt-Winther notes that there is indeed some positive connection between the amount of time that children spend on technology and their delinquency as well as depression. He notes that this connection is especially noticeable whereby the children spend at least six hours of a day on the screen. Even though he understandably contends that this may not be effective for the youth, most of whom have the resilience for screen consumption surpassing six hours, the same cannot be expected to apply to children below the age of 13.
Furthermore, even though research indicates that video games may be an appropriate alternative to traditional play for children in terms of enhancing cognition and dealing with social challenges, the benefits seem to diminish or completely disappear when children indulge beyond a particular threshold. In fact, Kardefelt-Winther observes that negative effects begin to show when children spend more than half a day playing video games. Similarly, the use of social media is a common phenomenon among children in this digital era. Spending a long time on social media platforms has also been associated with negative outcomes in terms of mental health, particularly because the profiles used in these platforms are generally meant to present the user in a positive way. Accordingly, the platforms influence children’s perception about their lives or about other people. This may in turn cause feelings of inadequacy, resentment, or envy which are not good for children’s mental health development.
Uncontrolled usage of technology and certain websites has also been known to affect the capacity of children to create and maintain social relationships, something that is critical for their overall development and future success. There are two major hypotheses that have been explored in an attempt to develop an understanding of the negative effects that unmetered use of technology may have on children. These include displacement and social compensation hypotheses. Essentially, the former suggests that social interaction through online platforms reduces face-to-face interactions, which in turn reduce social capital and friendships. Patrikakou agrees with this school of thought, noting that:
“Online interactions lack features that have been a crucial part of human relations, such as eye contact, body language, and voice inflections and, therefore, are often characterized as lacking the richness of face-to-face interactions”
On the other hand, social compensation hypothesis suggests that online communication is beneficial to people who are isolated and socially anxious since they may feel more comfortable when forming friendships in such environments. This hypothesis was proved in a relatively recent popularity study based on young people’s use of Facebook where it was observed that a high percentage of users with low self-esteem tend to reveal more information regarding themselves in online environments than in real-life settings. Furthermore, a majority of them admitted to having posted exaggerated information regarding their life just to look popular on this social platform. Overall, internet and technology is not the major cause of negative or positive outcomes. Instead, individual and contextual factors are the ones that determine the effects of technology and internet on people’s relationships and social interactions. At a time when internet access has increased all around the globe, it makes sense that most children will have some form of online presence. As such, they can expect to make friends fast in this environment. However, parents/guardians are cautioned that excess use of these platform could have deleterious effects on relationships especially with their families. For instance, new handheld devices and cellphones have been known to undermine family practices especially during meals. These practices are very important in terms of maintaining family connectedness, particularly in this fast-paced world. For this reason, the adverse effects of technology on these practices should indeed be a matter of concern for all stakeholders because this may significantly hinder optimal growth of a very important bond; the family bond.
Finally, unmetered access to technology and particular websites may also negatively affect children’s physical activity and thus their overall physical health. Researchers have dedicated a lot of research on this area, with the major concern being that spending more time on digital technology automatically results in reduced time for physical activity. This in turn leads to health problems including obesity, overweight, and cardiac problems among others. Majority of studies suggest that physical health problems among children cannot be solely tied to the time that they spend online and the content they access. Notwithstanding, these factors cannot be completely eliminated in expanding constructive discourse, which would inform policy making and sensitize parents on best practices in assuring the physical well-being of children.
While there is sufficient evidence to show that American children are not active enough in comparison to historical statistics, the increase in overweight and diabetes can indeed be tied to technology, contrary to what most people believe. This connection is established through caloric intake. Essentially, most of the screen-based technologies have encouraged indiscriminate eating as well as intake of high levels of calories. Additionally, children have become more exposed to advertisement regarding food products, leading to poor food choices on their part. Specifically, exposure to food advertisements has led to poor eating habits and excessive caloric intake. Other negative physical health outcomes related to uncontrolled use of technology are computer vision syndrome and digital eyestrain. These conditions develop in children due to excessive use of digital gadgets and screens. They are characterized by dryness of the eyes due to exhaustion, headaches, and short sightedness in some cases. Some of the recommended actions that parents need to take to prevent this negative effect on children include limiting the time that children spend looking at screens, encouraging them to engage in outdoor activities, and ensuring that they get enough sleep.
It is the responsibility of parents/guardians to protect their children from dangers that may result from the use of technology. According to UNICEF, the rights of children in this digital era should always be protected in respect to their evolving capacities. This implies that with respect to their maturity and age, children need assistance to understand and apply the terms and conditions concerning the use of a product, website, service, or application. Furthermore, children should not be asked for informed consent regarding the collection and subsequent processing of personal data at an age where it clear that they lack that capacity. Guardians and parents should also play an active role in terms of determining the nature and scope of content and information that children should consume and share, having taken into account their views and opinions. With full knowledge of the dangers that children are exposed to in online environments, parents/guardians should make effort to limit children’s access to technology especially for those below the age of 13.
Cankaya and Ferhan note that most parents are certainly aware of the dangers that their children are exposed to while using various technologies and websites and are therefore willing to implement various types of restrictions on their uses as illustrated in the table below:
Table indicating some of the common rules that parents across the world apply to their children regarding their use of technology.
Furthermore, there are various kinds of tools that parent may apply to aid in restricting the type of content and length of access for their children. These include filtering and blocking, time limiting, monitoring and outgoing data blocking tools among others. These tools range from restricting access to specific sites and images, to recording children’s overall activity online and displaying warnings to them children when they attempt to access prohibited content or websites. Among these tools, the blocking and filtering software is the most popular for parents across the globe. Accordingly, various studies recommend their use in order to protect children from various kinds of risks. Notwithstanding, while formulating rules and the use of various restrictive tools on children may be helpful, there is a need to explain them and apply them in a consistent manner in order to maintain their positive impact on the children. It should be clear that the aim of these restrictions is to foster accountability in terms of decision-making and overall independence as the child grows. After all, parents may not always be present to enforce these restrictions and children will, from time to time, push and test limits. As such, children’s understanding that these restrictions are made to enable them make better choices in life and be responsible for all their actions is a message that parents need to send.
As the use of technology amongst children continues to be a hot topic of discussion across various circles, it is important to establish the line between what is healthy and harmful in regard to the use of technology. This will undoubtedly necessitate an individual method that involves consideration of the kid’s life context; a task that is well suited for parents/guidance given their good understanding of the child’s environment and needs. It is worth noting here that the time spent using technology does indeed affect children, with both “excessive use” and “no use” resulting in negative outcomes. Parents may pursue complete prohibition of technology use, but this would undoubtedly be untenable in the end. On the other hand, moderated use has been shown to bring about positive outcomes in terms of mental health, development of social relationships, and physical health, which justifies parental control. Certainly, blanket recommendations in terms of limiting access may not optimally work since content that is harmful to younger children may not be as harmful to older children. However, this does not eliminate the fact that parents should embrace the duty of ensuring these controls are established formally in order to avert the negative effects associated with use of these dangerous technologies and websites on children. To adapting to the unavoidable burst of digital technology, parents/guardians will be required to make various adjustments in regard to their parenting although the voices and experiences of children will need to be taken into consideration. This is especially important if constructive dialogue revolving around the harmful and healthy use of technology at school, at home, and in the society is to be achieved. Additionally, researchers contend that popularity of these technologies, particularly among the young generation, presents a huge potential in developing intervention, prevention and treatment of pediatric obesity and overweight.
In conclusion, the rapid advancement of technology and ease of access is a trend that is expected to grow in the coming years, which calls for a constructive discourse to ensure mitigation of negative impacts and optimization of relevant benefits as far as children are concerned. Children are an especially vulnerable demographic that needs special consideration due to their low capacity to make reasonable decisions. This is particularly important given the wider range of negative effects that excessive and uncontrolled use of technology can have on children’s mental, social, and physical health. Restricting time, content, and conduct is one of the best approach that parents can employ to guarantee their children’s safety from these risks. It will therefore be interesting to see the future policy directions in relation to optimizing the benefits of technology to children while limiting the potential risks involved.