Working as an educational psychologist for over 10 years I’m no stranger to the ever-changing world our children, and society, experience through the increasing use, reliance and need for technology.
I’ll admit that after finishing a PhD on the effects of cyberbullying the views I had on the online world were weary. Weary not of the bounty of information available, but instead, weary of the open door to bullying, abuse and exploitation a lack of education left many young people exposed to.
After initially feeling the need to push against young people accessing the online world, I soon came around to a realisation that a better approach is to embrace in a controlled way. For this reason, I became passionate about exploring how we can educate our children and young people to understand the risks of technology giving them the knowledge and skills they needed to use it safely. This passion burned even brighter when seven years ago I took on the most challenging role of my life in becoming a mother of twin boys. My partner and I worked hard setting up technology boundaries in our home and, even if I do say so myself, had things running pretty smoothly. It was accepted that the Xbox did not go on if it is a school day, iPads stay in the lounge, phone calls are made with our consent and we have even managed to convince them they will not need a fancy smartphone until they are at least 18 (although I’m not sure how long that one will last!).
However, as we all know, COVID-19 has now changed much of the norm meaning we have no choice but to find new coping strategies which often go against many of the technology rules we have all put in place. Yes, many of our previous coping strategies remain but, with new advice being offered constantly, each family and home will be managing in the best way they can. My family, for example, has found ourselves embracing technology far more than we ever have before; it has now become a daily expectation for our children to log into the iPad to access their school tasks and so important to allow them to frequently ring friends and family to gain reassurance that they are still out there and safe. Perhaps the biggest change in our house is that the Xbox is now a daily treat after school tasks are completed and, if I am really honest, is a welcome break when mummy just needs half an hour to sit in quiet and have a cup of coffee!
Whilst there were initially feelings of guilt for breaking many of the rules we had worked so hard to set up, this feeling has had to fade away. During this time, we need strategies that work for us as a family. This is not to say I don’t remain aware of the importance of a daily walk and monitoring the games they play, but if technology can help us all through this difficult time why fight against it? In fact, how can children be told “no” when many parents, myself included, are now sat in their homes on laptops for most of the day in order to keep working and keeping in contact with the outside world.
Whether we like it or not, a word of caution must remain, as with all the benefits that technology is bringing to this situation it does not diminish the risks and while our rules of usage may have changed our monitoring cannot. There is no doubt that we are not the only ones observing our children’s increased online behaviour and for those who have inappropriate intentions this represents a dream situation. To now have bored young people who have time on their hands searching for new experiences, information, sites and friends the potential risks are greater and will be for many weeks to come. For this reason, we must find a balance between relaxing the rules whilst staying safe.
As adults, we must offer guidance – not through lecturing and dictating but through conversation. Find the time to learn about technology, ask your children to educate you. While at times I feel like my children are talking a different language to me I have enjoyed them showing me around their Minecraft world and they have enjoyed showing me how to access all their school work through various apps, even teaching me how to use features of my phone I didn’t know existed. Now represents a perfect opportunity to learn together as a family, to make our homes environments where open conversations about online risk can be held and where we rely on technology to remove feelings of isolation by being a light of connectivity to those we care about and love. Stay Safe – Be eAWARE.
Dr. Melanie Ackers BSc MSc DEdChPsy