We speak more and more of "digital children". The relationship between children and the web is definitely a problem that in the long-term lockdown from the Covid-19 pandemic it is amplified. Abuse of digital devices and their uncontrolled use has increased the exposure of children to the dangers of the Internet. 

“The coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented increase in screen time. School closures and tight restrictions mean that more and more families are using technology and digital solutions to enable children to study, have fun and connect with the outside world, but not all children have the knowledge, skills and resources necessary to be safe online ".

In the words of Howard Taylor, General Manager of Global Partnership to End Violence.

Incorrect use of digital technology by children and adolescents it is very dangerous with sometimes irreparable consequences. The tragic episodes that often, unfortunately, report the deadly challenges of dangerous games online and on social networks (among the latest Blackout challengeed), turn the spotlight on the dangers of the web.

Several studies monitoring the behaviour and experiences of minors online allow us to have a more defined situation of the growing phenomenon. Between these EU Kids online, a multinational research network that aims to improve the knowledge of online risks and safety of children in 19 European countries, including Italy. The Internet, in a contemporary era, is a tool that offers infinite possibilities for communication and information exchange even for children, but to use it in the right way it is necessary to follow some basic rules.

What are the main risks children run on the web?

How to educate them to use digital devices responsibly and social network?

We talk about it with Dr. Sabrina Suma, clinical psychologist in Dubai which explains how to help, not alienate, the little ones to use the web correctly and consciously in the digital age. 

Dr.Sabrina Suma

With the long period of lockdown and distance learning have you encountered an increase in problems related to the relationship between children and the network? 

Yes, especially a increased requests for help from parents and families and an increase in dysfunctional behaviours in both children and young people. Younger children, in general, reacted better in the early stages of the pandemic than adolescents, but the protracted isolation and sometimes exclusive use of digital communication modalities meant that the normal process of separation-individuation, so important for a gradual exit from the symbiotic fusion with the parent, it has undergone a heavy phase of arrest and this has created many problems. It is good to remember that children sometimes have a blatant way of expressing their discomforts and what is normally considered pathological in children is often simply physiological or functional, that represents a "creative adaptation" to a suffering that is difficult to bear, which generally does not regardless of the parent's emotional sphere. 

Today children are more exposed to the dangers of the web, how to protect them? 

The regulations in force at this time hardly protect the rights of children. The possibility of being able to protect the little ones from the dangers of the web is also compromised by a large offer, a limited ability to control and the possibility of remaining anonymous through the use of a false identity. Unfortunately, it is not easy to establish a clear boundary between a safe way of using the web and a wrong way, especially in a context as confused and contradictory as today, and quarantine has certainly not improved a situation that was already critical before: today the word connection has lost its main meaning of "bond" or "relationship" in favor of the colder meaning of "connection" to a network.

What are the main risks?

First of all the cyberbullying: the fact of relating in a way in which identities and situations can remain hidden and virtual, puts children in a situation of fragility from which they can hardly escape. Moreover, the children themselves, to enter certain platforms, have to lie about age and create a false identity, and this is also well known by the so-called cybernetic predators, subjects who take advantage of the trust of children to lure them and to abuse their innocent naivety. I am thinking, for example, of paedophilia or the very dangerous "challenges" launched on the web that sometimes fill the pages of the news, or the phenomenon of "phishing", through which organized criminals manage to obtain important and private information concerning credit card passwords. o important details of bank accounts, personal and confidential information and much more.

The web is however a valid information and communication tool ...

If used correctly it represents a wonderful opportunity for knowledge and growth for children; this is why banning their use would be counterproductive: it is more important to talk to children about these dangers, educate them to recognize dangerous situations and try to help them build a "digital conscience" capable of always protecting them. 

How important it is to inform children of the dangers they face and how to educate them in a conscious use of the web?

It is very important. The future of children will be a digitalized future made of technology: thinking of solving the problem by prohibiting our children from using the web would be an unintelligent and certainly not very adaptive strategy. While waiting for regulations that provide greater safety and security, training, psychological support and dialogue are and remain the only trump cards to protect the little ones from subtle forms of manipulation.

How do you know if a child is addicted to the web?

In children, the most frequent disorders generally involve a somatic component, this being the elective channel of communication. The discomfort can be expressed in mild forms, such as stomachache, crying fits and difficulty falling asleep. Or it can be expressed in a more important way and therefore require the intervention of an expert: as in the case of severe forms of restlessness, nocturnal awakenings, poor concentration, anxiety and various forms of behavioural regression. In the latter case, the symptoms rarely occur on their own and are sometimes just the tip of the iceberg: they are related to a degree of the circumstantial malaise of the parents who may in turn abuse the web or experience a stressful and highly destabilizing moment. so they let the child spend many hours alone on the net.

Is there greater parental awareness?

Yes, but at the same time there is also a kind of inability to implement a detoxifying program against the digital addiction of children and young people. This is because they are themselves dependent on this world of virtual conversations, shares and notifications. Let us remember that children internalize what we do, not what we say. If we want a child to be interested in real everyday life, we must be the first to believe that life on this side of the screen can be more full and interesting. The experiments conducted during the quarantine in some Italian localities, see the experience of Prato, have highlighted that isolating a group of young people from the digital world, for a certain period of time, certainly triggers new awareness and curiosity, but it cannot be considered a valid alternative and celebrating analogic to demonize digital is not the solution of the addiction: detoxification must be done gradually, through small steps. 

The arrival of summer and the easing of restrictions with a gradual return to normal could be a time to "detoxify" children from the web. How?

A serious program of "Digital detox" with children it starts by respecting a series of rules: 

  • Turn off or remove cell phones when you eat, sleep and go to the bathroom, because staying connected is certainly not a "primary" need;
  • Disable notifications from all apps for a few hours of the day;
  • Avoid replying promptly to all messages even when it is not necessary;
  • Stop compulsively checking chats continuously and try to focus attention on the activity that is taking place, resisting the mendacious reminder that “multitasking” is synonymous with efficient;
  • Then avoid using iPad and telephone to keep children calm in public places, especially if they are very young: remember that boredom is a growth partner useful for stimulating imagination and creativity, and trains and prepares for the frustrations of life;
  • Try to spend quality time: if we are bored they too are bored;
  • Trying to talk more, after all, behind the desire to stay connected there is always a healthy desire to stay in touch and have a relationship, as repeatedly emphasized by neuropsychology.

What is your advice?

During this time it is important to spend time outdoors. Allow children to play with peers, of course, if they do not have a monitor or cell phone; delimit the hours of connection to the network; avoid letting the technological tools be used during the falling asleep and awakening phase; but above all to demonstrate to children that, if you really want to enjoy an ice cream, you have to keep your senses open: you can't do it mechanically with your eyes down on a screen. My message is to take advantage of this moment to rediscover the pleasure of "being human". This is what our children are asking of us, because, as Paulo Coelho writes, poet and great connoisseur of the human soul “We can have all the means of communication in the world but nothing, absolutely nothing, replaces the gaze of the human being”.

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