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Covid-19: Keeping Children Safe as Life Goes Digital

Due to the lockdown and the restriction on physical movement, we have all been left with the mammoth task of occupying ourselves and the children at home, using inventive means 24 X 7. It is common knowledge that children across the age groups are spending an increased amount of time online. What may have started off as a way to occupy energetic children, while their parents worked from home, now seems to have become a habit. We are all aware about the negative effects of screen time on children, which ranges from poor attention span, increased irritability & agitation, sleeplessness, and so on.

Enough has been said about it already, and I won’t be talking about it here. What I do want to talk about here is how do we minimize the negative effects of screen time on our kids, while at the same time acknowledging that there is no escape from screen time (whether good or bad) for children for at least the coming few months. In today’s scenario, expecting a zero screen time for children, with all the classes and academic work being online is a utopian concept and thus, we need to come to terms with the reality that children will be engaging with digital screens on a daily basis.

So, here are a few suggestions which parents/caregivers can implement to reduce the harmful effects of the increased digital exposure on children:

  • Communicate & be aware of your child’s digital activity: It’s important to talk to children & teenagers openly about the online world. Make them aware about the potential pitfalls of prolonged screen exposure. Most importantly, talk to children about what they are watching, reading, and who they are talking to. Talk about what kind of content is appropriate for them to access and how to stay away from falling into the traps of strangers online. This conversation should be ongoing, occur on a regular basis & needs to be two-way. Give your child the avenue to share their preferences, concerns, and allow them to ask questions without being judgmental.
  • Emphasize on privacy: In line with the above point, it’s important that children are educated about the rules of talking to a stranger online and/or befriending people online. Parents should lay special emphasis on educating children about what kind of content can be shared online and what kind of content is out of bounds. Being aware about how information can be misused online, will help children from refraining to share private information, like their home address with complete strangers online.
  • Keep screens & devices in common places: It is important to monitor your children’s screen time and which sites they are visiting. And that would just become easier if the screens were placed at a place where you could view it easily. For instance, it would be better to buy a desktop for all the online classes rather than a laptop, as a desktop is fixed and children will have to use it in front of you. Avoid letting the kids take the devices to their rooms, or in secluded corners because it may increase the risk of them using the device for purposes other than the one being mentioned. Several parents have complained that children take the devices for academics but then watch web series online. This can be avoided simply by keeping devices fixed or at least by having the rule, that devices be used only within a designated area.
  • Activate the parental controls: All devices, including televisions, have parental controls which just set some content out of bounds for children. Parents need to educate themselves and keep all adult content and content they don’t want their children to be exposed to, blocked.
  • Get social media savvy: The digital world and the language used therein, is constantly evolving; there are code words and short forms such as the ones which parents cannot even imagine. So it is advisable for parents to get behind the screen and educate themselves about the latest lingo being used in the world of social media. This will help you notice any red flags and be on alert if you come across such vocabulary among your child’s texts or messages online.
  • Set the correct example: Children learn by imitation & modeling, two extremely powerful techniques as explained by the social learning theory of behaviour. It is, therefore, extremely crucial that parents/caregivers model positive behaviour in front of their children. Simply put, this means that don’t be on your phones all day long if you don’t want your kids to be on the phone for the whole day.
  • Reinvent the purpose & use of the digital devices: Use technology to get your children moving around; for example engage them with apps and tools which count their steps and make running or moving around fun. Take some online courses with your children together; for example, playing a musical instrument or coloring.

To conclude, try to engage your kids in a world beyond their screens; it may be difficult given the existing curbs but a lot can also be done at home, without being digitally connected.

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