RIYADH: While more than half of children between the ages of 6 and 9 use the internet every day, 38 percent of parents in the Middle East feel they cannot control what their children access online.
This leaves many at risk of viewing inappropriate content, becoming victims of cyberbullying, or sharing private data unintentionally, and such is the changing landscape of the web that many parents do not know how to cope.
The internet has done wonders for bridging cultures, facilitating business and improving education. But it is still a dangerous place for the uninitiated. And, as children become more technologically advanced than their parents, when still at a vulnerable stage in their development, this provides challenges for those trying to protect them.
Dr. Afnan Abdul Fattah, an orthodontic specialist at Taibah University, is a mother of two young daughters, 5 and 8 years old, and has experienced this disparity first hand.
“I do not know how to use the smart TV anymore because it is more complicated, but the TV is very simple for my children to use. They know how to switch from YouTube to cable channels and to Netflix. Sometimes I need them to do that for me,” she said.
“There are things that I do differently, if I search in Google I would type the things that I want to search for, whereas my daughter would use Siri or the microphone. She is using a faster approach, so I do really think children are advancing quite rapidly in terms of their use of technology.”
Many parents, at a loss for how to keep pace, often find themselves powerless to rein in their children’s web time.
Dr. Aisha Karman, a psychologist, believes some parents are simply not aware of the risks posed by excessive use of the internet to children.
“Controlling children’s use of the internet is difficult nowadays, but generally, children under 6 years should not use it. When children enter sites such as YouTube, there may be inappropriate clips that they might be exposed to, and without the supervision of a parent the internet is dangerous,” she said.
“Preventing or setting up programs for protection is necessary, but that is not enough if there is no supervision by adults.”
Karman believes determining time limits is important for children under the age of 12. In fact, she believes that even adults should minimize their use of internet, as it can lead to addiction.
Strong family ties
The most important thing in a young child’s life though, Karman explains, is a healthy relationship between children and their parents.
“The golden rule of any problem within the family is the ability of the parents to embrace the child, approach them and provide a good amount of love and attention. The root of protecting a child is to protect feelings and to communicate, not to make children fear their parents or fear being punished or threatened. This is the language that will protect them,” she said.
“Children should be allowed to use the internet, but must have clear boundaries. If parents are not role models for their children, there will be no clear path for their children to follow.”
As well as setting boundaries and leading by example, Karman also feels that parents must listen to their children to modify their behavior. Fighting boredom, meanwhile, is key to stopping overstimulation online, and providing suitable alternatives that satisfy children’s interests will decrease the time they spend on the internet.
“I believe that the behavior of parents with their children is the key to persuading them. I was keen to involve myself with what my children are doing or watching or playing. So I can focus on the outcomes of my children’s behavior and fix what needs to be fixed,” she added.