Parents should be concerned by their children's exposure to the internet

T o o much u s e o f smartphones and other devices can inhibit interaction between parents and children;

World-renowned forensic cyber-psychologist Mary Aiken told Barbara Scully that parents should be concerned at how their children’s development is being hampered by their exposure to the internet.

Recently RTÉ screened the film Older Than Ireland which featured an eclectic cast of characters all of whom were born before 1916.

It was compelling viewing and made me wonder about the many changes that generation had experienced. Those of us born later in the last century have also seen great changes, most of which are related to technology. But what about our children?

The children born in the 21st century have childhoods that bear very little resemblance to ours. In many ways their lives are far more regulated than ours were, with organised activities and mobile phones that allow us to generally know where they are. And if they are home they are safe, aren’t they?

Dr Mary Aiken thinks perhaps not. Because when your child is home they are very likely to be online, watching movies, communicating with friends or playing games.

And although we keep an eye on what they are doing, Aiken believes that the internet is in fact another world, largely unregulated and in which our children are free to wander about accessing all kinds of information much of which may, at best be inappropriate and at worst be potentially damaging to their development.

Aiken is a forensic cyber psychologist and describes her new book, The Cyber Effect, as “an early warning of some of the negative issues around children and the internet”.

She says “in ten years we will have a longitudinal study that says here is what we should or shouldn’t do. In the meantime kids are being born and growing up and I am trying to pull together what do we know now and highlight where the gaps in our knowledge are.”

Aiken has been involved in many different cyber research projects and she says “the one thing I began to observe was that whenever technology interfaces with a base human disposition, the result tended to be amplified and accelerated. I became fascinated by this and I called it the ‘cyber effect’.”

She began to investigate what this cyber effect means developmentally for our children, saying “because whatever about an adult picking up a behaviour or developing a bad habit online, children, from babies to teenagers, go through certain golden developmental periods that they don’t do twice. So I became fascinated by the impact of technology during those periods.”

So is access to the internet changing our children’s behaviour? What are the dangers we, as parents should be aware of?

Did you know that the average person checks their smartphone 200 times a day? That’s a lot of checking and it may be coming between us and our new babies. Aiken recounts how she observed on a train journey, a mother feeding her baby a bottle with one hand while checking her phone with the other, over a relatively long period of time.

“Babies faces are designed to be the most attractive thing on the planet to facilitate bonding,” she explains.

“Now all of a sudden there is something more attractive and compelling than the face of an infant and my question in the book is what does this mean for the species? What does it mean if parents are not making eye contact with their children?”

Aiken endorses the recommendation of the American Academy of Paediatrics of no screen time, including TV, for children under the age of two. In her book she outlines the reasons why but essentially it is that babies learn from interacting with the real environment around them and cannot make sense of what they are seeing on screen until they are two years old.

Mary thinks parents are not sufficiently aware of this advice and says this is another reason she wrote this book. She also has lots to say about toddlers and tablets and so called educational apps and games for the very young, as it is a field she has researched in depth.

But what about our older kids, what do we need to understand about their activity online?

“Technology was designed to be rewarding, engaging and seductive to the normal population, but did anyone think about the abnormal; the deviant criminal or the vulnerable and the impact of technology on those groups?

“So if you are a cyber-criminal operating from the deep web it’s fantastic in terms of connectivity, of finding like-minded people. But equally if you are an 11-year-old girl with an eating or self-harm disorder, you can also find like-minded communities online. And the problem is that finding those communities in anonymous environments fuelled by online disinhibition, can actually normalise or socialise the behaviour.

“In other words, it can make it seem OK and even facilitate the behaviour. We need to understand this in order to actually do something about it.”

Dr Mary Aiken points to studies that show young children are better off without any screen time
Dr Mary Aiken points to studies that show young children are better off without any screen time

Pornography of course is “the elephant in the cyber room” and Mary quotes a comprehensive EU study which asked 8 to 12 year olds what bothered them most online and yes, it was pornography they’d seen.

And this isn’t just nudity, this is hard core adult pornography. We have yet to find out what the long term effect of this exposure is.

Sexting, the posting of sexual images of self or others, is another phenomenon that is on the increase. “There are studies that say between 25% to 40% of kids are engaging in this behaviour” says Aiken. Why?

“Sexual curiosity is normal for young people and is part of their developmental process. That’s a social issue at one end of the spectrum but at the other end of the spectrum you have sex offenders who are grooming a child to generate an image and that is a criminal issue. The problem is the law at the moment has one lens and the lens is the legislation around child pornography.”

So teens posting sexual images online could be prosecuted for distributing child pornography. (Aiken says child pornography is how the law refers to it. It is more correctly termed child abuse material.)

Aiken believes we owe our teenagers an apology. In the book she says we are “failing to protect and defend them in cyberspace”.

She believes this is a children’s rights issue and has proposed that a new amendment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that would enshrine children’s rights in a cyber context. She considers this an emergency.

How to manage your children and the internet

Parents should be concerned by their children's exposure to the internet

Put your phone down. From babies to teenagers our children need our time and attention.

No screen time for babies under two years of age and that includes TV. So-called educational games and apps for toddlers may not be that educational. Dr Aiken suggests the following sites to help guide you; pbskids.org, sesameworkshop.org and commonsensemedia.org

Parental controls can be overcome. A google search will confirm that. With older kids — “be vigilant but not a vigilante”. Respect their privacy but talk and ask them about their online life as well as their real life.

Lobby for better online protection for our children. Age verification, online for example, should be possible. Read the book – and then get your teens to read it.


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