Nurturing children for a digital future

Pupils use laptops for learning under the OLPC programme. (File)

It is clear that the digital world is here to stay. Moreover, it is a welcome and necessary component of a 21st century childhood. Children’s wellbeing in the digital environment is of no less importance than their wellbeing in any other setting.

The digital environment is a technology and can therefore be designed according to the needs of children and young adults to meet their developmental milestones. So far, however, it has failed to adapt to children’s needs.

The pace of recent advances in digital media leaves many parents and carers increasingly anxious about what these changes will spell for their children, now and in the future.

How do parents and carers approach the task of bringing up their children in the digital age? What risks or opportunities do they see opening up for them and their children?

Nowadays, it is quite natural to investigate how children and young people, along with their parents, carers, mentors and educators imagine and prepare for their personal and work futures in a digital age.

However, parents and carers are highly diverse with regard to flexibility of allowing children to freely access technology. There’re different economic, religious, social and cultural contexts in which parents make choices in the digital age. The diversity in parents’ orientations to the digital future varies from a culture to a culture.

The information society services control over personal data. But who is looking out for children and their data privacy? In most jurisdictions today, children under a certain age, companies should gain parental consent before processing their personal data. But under what age?

According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child is defined as “a human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”.

This age is similar to the provisions of Rwanda’s law relating to the rights and the protection of the child.

In the context to the information technology, the under-age is 16, as the age of consent, albeit for largely unexplained reasons. In other words, it is called the ‘age of independence’. However, it is reasonably advisable for parents to assess their child’s maturity rather than the legal question of consent.

The findings have shown that for parents of children aged 0-17, their average answer for the age of independence is 13 years old, perhaps because this is what they are used to. But the most common answer is 16 years old.

The reason for this difference between the average and mode is that parents’ views vary greatly according to the age of their child. So while parents of young children consider 13 a reasonable age, parents of teenagers take a different view, clearly thinking that they should stay involved in their children’s decisions about internet use.

Parents must trade-off their children’s online opportunities against the risks. The dilemma is that if 16 is chosen, younger teenagers must rely on parental consent, potentially limiting their participation and learning opportunities.

Perhaps oddly, there has been scant attention to what children are taught or have access. At times, children can access risks online, such as inappropriate conduct, inappropriate content, and inappropriate contact.

As a result, there’s a need to keep them safe online. They may stumble upon questionable content while searching for something else by clicking on the wrong links.

To date, children are often the early adopters of emerging services and technologies and therefore the first to spot its contradictions and challenges, yet they are rarely asked their opinion, and are very often the last to be heard.

The digital environment looks quite different when we look at it from the point of view of a child’s ability to meet his or her development goals. Rather than a single environment, it appears as a landscape of opportunity, understanding, risk and misunderstanding, which is unusually absent of parental advice.

Despite certain digital age downsides, every child has the right to access the digital world creatively, knowledgeably and fearlessly. Without access they are disadvantaged. But access that is predicated on adult consent provides a complex environment that often gets in the way of young people meeting their development goals.

The advent of the information technology offers great opportunities to children. In particular, it has profoundly changed the ways in which children interact with and participate in the world around them.

Internet access points, mobile technology and the growing array of internet-enabled devices, combined with the immense resources to be found in cyberspace provide unprecedented opportunities to learn, share and communicate.

In principle, all stakeholders are duty-bound to make a digital environment fit and safe for children. Though not all children are of the same age, but children of different ages have vast differences in maturity, understanding and capacity.

Yet with a few exceptions of services for very young children, but these age differences are barely reflected in the services of the digital world. Therefore, parents principally have a responsibility of not leaving their children alone in the middle of a city. The internet is like a big city with all kinds of risks.

The writer is a law expert.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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