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Keeping ‘digitods’ safe on the internet

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Known as ‘digitods’, the current generation of children has never experienced a time when the internet could not be accessed with the touch of a mobile device – anywhere, any time.

Australian Catholic University Professor of Education Susan Edwards says the accessibility of the internet has created a need for cyber safety education for young children.

“Touch screen mobile technologies has quite literally put the internet at the fingertips of preschoolers. What the research shows is that internet activity in this age group has been really rapid,” Professor Edwards says.

“In the past for a child to be connected to the internet they had to be at a computer, connected to a keyboard and a mouse. Often they needed adult support. Now with touchscreens it’s so easy for them. 

“The technologies that we have are making the internet invisible. Touch screens are accessible to children and more and more internet connected devices and wearables, including children’s toys are often connected to the internet.”

Parents just need to be aware that just like they teach children about road and sun safety, that they should teach their children how to use technologies safely too.
Professor of Education Susan Edwards

In her research Young children’s everyday concept of the internet1, Professor Edwards and her colleagues found that with the rapid increase in internet activity by children aged 4–5 years, often independently of adult supervision, the need for early childhood cyber-safety education was becoming urgent.

However, the research argued that cyber safety education for young children couldn’t be effectively developed without consideration for children’s understanding of the internet.

She found children have what are called everyday concepts of the internet. This means their understanding of the internet revolves around family members, friends and community. 

“They think it’s a game, email or skype. Their understanding is describing social practices. They don’t have an understanding of it as a networked system that they can share data over,” Professor Edwards says.

“It’s hard to engage them in cyber safety education because to do that you have to understand a network of technologies. 

“What we’ve been arguing is that early childhood educators are already used to building children’s concept of literacy and numeracy through play. Now it is time for children’s understanding about networked technologies to also be developed in early childhood. We can do that best through play based learning.

“Educators are good at teaching mathematical concepts using blocks to learn about size and shape and early literacy concepts to draw and write. Children need to be given opportunities to learn about network concepts in the same way. 

“For example, through home corner there could be a couple of play iPads or a laptop computer for role play and an educator  might attach some strings and explain that you can’t 'see' the internet but they are connected with each other. Children can then role play sending a text or sharing an email and the teacher might put the email on a piece of paper and attach it on the string and guide it to the next machine showing the children how the technology is networked and ‘talking’ to each other.”

Professor Edwards says parents have an important role to play in educating their children about the internet. 

“Parents know they need to read to their children to build their literacy skills and count to build their numeracy skills. We also need to encourage parents to teach their children that technology is connected. ‘We are talking to Nanny. How come Nanny can see us on Skype?’ We need to be lifting the invisibility on the internet,” she says.

“Parents need to remember that the internet is very pervasive now. Parents just need to be aware that just like they teach children about road and sun safety, that they should teach their children how to use technologies safely too.  The internet becomes embedded as just part of the conversations we have in our parenting.”

The Royal Children’s Hospital Australian Child Health Poll Screen time: What’s happening in our homes? in 2017 found one-third of preschoolers now own their own tablet or smartphone.

The poll also revealed that 50 per cent of toddlers and preschoolers are using a screen-based device without supervision.

“The demands of the modern lifestyle mean a lot of parents are busy, so they use screen use as a digital babysitter. We found that 85 per cent of parents of young children say they use screens to occupy their kids so they can get things done,” Director of the Australian Child Health Poll, paediatrician Dr Anthea Rhodes says.

“There is little evidence to support the idea that screen use benefits the development of infants and toddlers, but physical playtime and face-to-face contact is proven to be critical to a child’s development. If you do offer screen time to your young child, it’s better if you watch it with them, so you can talk together about what they are seeing and help children to learn from the experience.”

When it comes to what’s happening in Australian households, Dr Rhodes says that many families are experiencing conflict over screen use and that a lack of physical activity and excessive use are big concerns to parents.

Dr Rhodes adds that the poll identified a link between parents’ screen use and their children’s use of screens.

“A strong relationship was seen between parents’ screen use and that of their children. Basically, a parent who has high levels of screen use is more likely to have a child with high levels of use. Three quarters of parents of children under six also said they do not put time limits on screen use."

However, Dr Rhodes says most parents reported that they do try to limit their children’s screen use but are not sure how to do this effectively.

Some key findings include:

  • The majority of Australian children, across all age groups, are exceeding the current national recommended guidelines for screen time.
  • Eighty-five per cent of parents of young children (aged less than 6 years) said they used screen-based devices to occupy their kids so they could get things done with one in four doing this every day of the week.
  • Younger children spend a significant time using screens at home; infants and toddlers averaged 14 hours, the two to five year-olds 26 hours, and the six to 12-year age group averaged 32 hours per week.

Professor Edwards says parents need to careful about modelling their own behaviour online given that they are often creating a child’s digital footprint even before they are born.

“Modelling is really important for children. If parents are going to take photos of their children and put it on social media they should ask their children first. ‘Do you mind if I take your photo and put it on Facebook?’ And after they take it explain that other people will see it on their phones too,” she says.

“They should let their children participate in decision making. If children are going to put their children in social media letting their children participate in the decision making is important. 

“It’s only just starting to dawn in the sector now that this is a generation growing up with their lives on social media not necessarily with their consent.”

Further links:

1 Edwards, S., Nolan, A., Henderson, M., Mantilla, A., Plowman, L. and Skouteris, H. (2018), Young children's everyday concepts of the internet: A platform for cyber-safety education in the early years. Br J Educ Technol, 49: 45–55. doi:10.1111/bjet.12529