Wednesday, March 12, 2008

When kids go digitally mobile

Kids of the mobile revolution

ND Batra
The Statesman

Kids of the mobile generation want to be connected with their friends through social networks, MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube, though they may not be always aware of the risks of exposure.

But don’t blame the parents; they just can’t stop worrying that the Internet, like guns and drinking, can be dangerous. Kids do not have the maturity of judgment and self-restraint to prevent accidental injuries to themselves and others. Especially now-a-days when cell phones are becoming multimedia mini-laptops and millions of kids are using them day and night, parents and health and law-enforcement officials are becoming increasingly concerned about cybercrimes against children.

Part of the problem is that parents and teachers cannot keep up with emerging technologies and do not know how kids are using them. It was easier to control the desktop because parents would just hover around to see where kids were surfing; but there is no way that a Web-enabled cell phone can be monitored.

The Internet could cause harm to children, for example, when stalkers and predators prowl chatrooms, assume fake identities and make propositions for romance and sex.

Several surveys have found that majority of teenagers online are contacted by people whom they never met before; and many kids do respond to e-mail and instant messages from strangers. Although some teen recipients do worry about unsolicited messages, most of them don’t care or treat them as a passing nuisance.

Reports after reports have urged parents, teachers and health-care professionals to educate children on how to deal with online sexual solicitations and other hazards of virtual life. Of course, dealing with risks is part of growing up. Just as we watch children on the playground, we should watch them in cyberspace, it is argued, rather than altogether preventing them from venturing into the wonderland of cyberspace.

According to a recent online victimization of youth research report from The National Children for Missing & Exploited Children, “Approximately one in seven youth online (10 to 17-years-old) received a sexual solicitation or approach over the Internet.”

Some online predators pursue their intended victims aggressively by calling them on phone and sending them letters through mail, money and gifts, according to the report. More than one-third of the surveyed children received “an unwanted exposure to sexual material -- pictures of naked people or people having sex.” Some children do inform their guardians or parents but majority of them do not bother, the report said. In response, some parents install software such as Net Nanny, Cybersitter, Safe Eyes or some other filters that are flooding the market.

Kids are normally reluctant to share their passwords for social networking sites, MySpace or Facebook; but a few parents do prevail and watch what their children are doing online. Looking at the rapid growth of mobile technology, the question is not how soon kids should go online because there is no way of stopping them at any age. The education market place, too, is pushing parents to put their children online, lest they be left behind in the digital age.

As Rory Cellan-Jones of BBC recently reported, “Children are at the cutting edge of the mobile internet revolution and both teachers and the phone industry can learn from them….While the teachers here are worried about aspects of mobile phone use such as bullying texts and explicit videos, they are aware that a ban is becoming untenable.” Since parents and teachers can’t stop them, the best way is to re-direct the cell phone use by adding educational value to it, it is suggested. “And they (teachers) are even beginning to explore how mobile phones could be used in lessons – one class was using phones to film simple animations,” said Cellan-Jones.

Although not much research is available at present to assess the impact of computers on educating children, no one wants his or her child to be left behind. Being there, being in cyberspace, is important. In an effort to bridge the digital divide and educational gap, some schools in the United States make available to students’ families a home connection to enable kids to do their homework and allow their parents to be in touch with the teachers.

Occasionally one comes across reports that students who had access to the network did better in mathematics and English scores than those who did not have such an opportunity. There are some educators who believe that letting even four-year old children surf the Internet would blossom their minds. Earlier the better, for which currently there is no hard research data available, but so strong is the passion of parents for their children’s future that even some politicians are ready to support the myth of early blossoming of the mind with their political demagoguery.

For children interactive cartooning and games can be great fun, but certainly not as much as they can have with biking, block building, finger-painting, and playing with mud, or just plain pushing and hustling. There are educators who still believe that the most precious natural gift for children is their imagination.

It is through tactile sensations and make-believes that they explore and make sense of their surroundings. The challenge before child psychologists, educators, health professionals and parents is to find a balance between the real and the virtual, so as to engage children emotionally and imaginatively. Let children grow at their natural pace rather than forcing them to ripen prematurely and create early bloomers.

(ND Batra is Professor of Communications, Norwich University, and is the author of Digital Freedom: How Much Can You Handle?)

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