“My son is always online. And it bothers me that I don’t know what kind of activities he is engaging in. Since I am not a very tech savvy person, I find it hard to understand if something is good for him or bad for him,” said Uzma Tahir, who is the mother of a nine-year-old boy.
Uzma’s sentiments echo a growing concern among parents about the increasing digital divide between parents and their kids. Most parents seem to fall under one of the two categories: either they are well behind their kids in understanding the new age terms — social networks, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Orkut — which makes it difficult for them to advice their children on their online habits, or they are very much regular users of these social media tools, which rings a bell of caution the moment they know that their kids are on the same networks which are flooded with age-inappropriate content that children might be exposed to.
Even in the US, which has a special policy about children’s online privacy called Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), creating a safe online experience for kids is a major concern. COPPA prevents sites from collecting personal information about kids below the age of 14 without parental consent. However, many popular social networking sites have continued to see an increasing influx of young people who register accounts by giving false dates of birth.
But the major cause of bad online experiences seems to be lack of role models who kids can emulate when it comes to online behaviour. Since all major social networking sites target the adult population, kids only have other adult users to imitate and learn from when it comes to their online behaviour. A survey by i-safe.org of 1,500 students between grades 4–8 reported that 42% of kids have been bullied while online. One in four have had it happen more than once. 35% of kids have been threatened online. Nearly one in five had had it happen more than once. Interestingly, 58% have not told their parents or an adult about something mean or hurtful that happened to them online.
Some social networks have slowly taken up the challenge by creating kid-friendly environments. Everloop, kidzui are some of the sites that are fast becoming a favourite destination for kids in the US. Even India is warming up to the concept with a new platform, Jooniyo, which provides a kid-friendly social platform.
Aakanksha Jain, a mother of two and a team lead for an IT company in Bangalore, felt that parents need to come out of their shell and actively encourage their kids to start using websites and tools that are child-friendly. “Telling my kids to stop using social networking sites will not make them stop. They might only end up doing it without telling me. Instead, I take some time out to browse and find out kid-friendly sites and tools that I can recommend to my kids. Once they find sites which are more relevant to them, they automatically lose interest in being part of grown up sites.” She said that her kids have almost completely stopped using Facebook after she introduced them to another social platform built exclusively for kids below 15 years.
But not everyone is comfortable getting online for their kids. Priyanka Bhattacharya, a mother of a 12-year-old daughter felt that not all parents can hope to learn more about websites and online tools to advice their children.
With a fast-growing digital divide between parents and their young ones, there is a definite need for strong role models that kids can emulate and learn from about using internet in a safe manner, while still having fun. Will it come through a policy shift by the government? Will it come through more parents taking initiative to explore child-friendly options on the internet for their kids? Will it come through social networking sites coming out with innovative ways to make their sites safer for kids?
The writer is CTO, EBS Interactive