Wednesday, October 5

Caring for your child’s cyber wellness

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Tan and Low-Lim with TCS’ publications.

THE rise of the Internet and digital tech has arguably changed our lives forever.

With a few taps on our phones, tablets or laptops, we can order almost anything we want right to our doorstep, access any information we want with a few quick searches, as well as chat and connect with people anywhere in the world as long as they have a working Internet connection.

And as digital tech continues to advance at an exponential rate, it seems every aspect of our lives has been enhanced in one way or another, vastly improving quality of life.

But this new-found enriched and convenient life of ours comes at a price because it has also brought along a slew of issues to our society that seem to affect the younger generation the most.

Addiction

One phrase often heard when discussing the Internet and digital tech is addiction. A few decades back, that word would only be associated with drugs or alcohol but nowadays, addiction can elicit a variety of responses from us.

Ask anyone on the streets and most likely they will have known or heard of someone around them being addicted to some aspect of our new tech driven world.

The issue of Internet addiction first started with classic online gaming addiction that sent parents into a frenzied panic as reports around the world of young men and women playing themselves literally to death began surfacing.

Over the years, its impacts started mellowing down but it continued to spread across our cyberworld to the point it has become almost expected that modern parents will inevitably have to deal with Internet addiction or excessive usage issues involving their kids.

In the past, one simple method of dealing with these issues was to just not let your child use the Internet or have gadgets, but let’s be honest, we have become so digitally connected now that this is no longer an option as your child will need, at the very least, a smart device and a WiFi connection to fit in with their peers, keep in touch with family and friends, and enhance their learning.

This has left parents with a dilemma because not only is Internet use a necessity now for their kids, the average age for a child getting its first smart device has dropped to a shocking 10.3 years.

So, if it’s unavoidable our kids will become smart device-wielding Internet natives, how can we care for their cyber wellness when the majority of us are guilty of excessive usage?

Tan shows one of TCS’ picture books for preschool children that helps teach healthy Internet and tech usage habits.

Put down that tablet

According to Anita Low-Lim, a senior director at Touch Community Services (TCS), a Singaporean-based non-profit organisation that aims to help build a healthier cyber culture, the most ideal way of preventing and curbing excessive actions among our children is through setting boundaries and building values.

“Generally, all our children are at risk of excessive actions, not just gaming but also checking social media, using the Internet, and checking chats. So that’s why we encourage parents to set boundaries like making agreements with their children about the usage of their tablets, phones, and computers.

“It can be written agreements that dictate how many hours a child can use a gadget or the child can only use the gadget after finishing its homework or chores.

“Of course, when the child is older, the parental involvement will decrease but we believe you need to set a foundation so that the child’s functions are based on a set of certain values such as I am being responsible with the use of the gadget or I am being responsible to my parents and myself.

“These are values we need to instil in our children, who are at risk of excessive actions,” she said, adding that it will be beneficial for parents to start these measures as early as pre-school as kids become more and more digitally advanced.

TCS chief executive officer James Tan also believes setting boundaries is needed to help teach children how to responsibly use the Internet but pointed out that the boundaries should be applied to parents as well to set an example.

“From our experience dealing with youths, one of the reasons why they end up with excessive behaviours that we have observed is that they are just not relating at home.

“When you go out, sometimes you’ll see whole families at a restaurant and the kids will have their tablets out while the parents will be looking at their own phones. When the parents are also doing it, it sets the tone for the children and it’s difficult for them to form relationships, especially if they continue to not have rules at home about Internet use.

“So, I think it’s really important parents set certain boundaries and rules on responsible Internet use in their homes.”

But what if your child’s excessive habits have already led to deeper issues like truancy, disobedience, withdrawal from family, and poor social performance?

TCS’ collection of picture books for preschool children that promotes cyber wellness.

Low-Lim, who is involved with TCS’ youth and research divisions, shares that the steps TCS will take in such a situation are through interventions.

“We’ll either do a-face-to-face intervention or a group intervention where we bring eight or 10 youths with similar problems together and guide them through a structured programme.

“Our aim is to teach them about balanced lifestyles and utilising diversification as a strategy. We will introduce them to real world activities that will help them form real friends and real group support so we can reduce the number of hours of gaming and increase the number of hours doing other things.”

With emphasis that family involvement will be crucial to help the children, Low-Lim said one of the main goals of the programme is to reduce family conflict and help parents better understand the feelings of the child in question.

Cyber-bullying

Besides just Internet addiction, the rise of the Internet has also amplified the issue of bullying among school children.

As smart devices become more and more accessible to kids at a younger age, cyberbullying has also become more prevalent in recent times because it can now happen 24/7 with everyone connected to one another.

“The Internet has made the whole world more connected but because of this, one comment like ‘you are ugly’ can easily be shared and viewed over and over again online. So, it doesn’t matter whether the child is in school or not, the bullying doesn’t stop anymore,” Low-Lim noted.

Cyberbullying can have a devastating effect on a child’s mental state as it’s usually not from just one but multiple sources as other Internet users join in on commenting, leaving the child feeling powerless, helpless and hopeless.

So, what can we do for our cyber-bullied youths?

“Whatever you do, don’t tell them to just forget about it. Help them to understand what they are feeling is fair and that it’s not something they have inflicted upon themselves.

“Don’t tell the child to not go online again but instead, help the child overcome the problem by teaching the child how they can manage it,” Low-Lim explained.

The responsibility of mitigating the effects of cyber-bullying doesn’t just fall on parents as bystanders, regardless of their age groups or affiliation with the victim or the bully, should also play a part in creating a more wholesome cyberspace by speaking up and defending victims of online cyberbullying.

However, this doesn’t address the issue of why do some children bully.

Tan believes the anonymity of the Internet is partly responsible for the prevalence of cyberbullying.

“Sometimes they’re not even aware they are bullying people but the recipients feel it and end up depressed and may commit self-harm or even suicide.

“They’re not aware it’s bullying because they hide behind a façade online and they take on a different persona which may make them feel more emboldened to speak their mind or fight for their causes versus if they were to interact face to face and act more politely and considerately.

“Even if there’s no intention to bully, oftentimes with the way language is brought forth online, it can be very hard on a person who is very sensitive.”

Recognising a dire need for more awareness on the issue, Tan said TCS has come to champion the curbing and prevention of cyber bullying, and collaborated with Unesco to launch the world’s first anti-cyber bullying campaign – Power of Zero.

The campaign aims to educate children that there can be a place with zero hate, zero violence, zero bullying, and hopes to bring home a message that actually you can say nice things online.

“Our children often forget they are being rude or hurtful because they may not be intending to bully but might do it out of fun. So, we want to help them understand it’s no longer funny when other people are starting to hurt.

“These are reminders we need to give everyone,” he stressed.