A growing number of apps and software solutions offer to help parents monitor their children’s activities, online and offline. But experts say there really is no substitute for good, old-fashioned parenting
It’s breakfast time for the Shah family in New Delhi. While the parents wait for their two kids to join them over pancakes and cereal, Nisha checks the web pages browsed by her boys, aged 12 and 8, the previous night. Though Nisha admits that this does feel like snooping, she says it’s the only way she can think of monitoring what her children are consuming online.
Nisha belongs to a generation of parenting millennial kids, constantly caught between accepting the technology their children have seamlessly included in their lives and fighting the perils of the Internet. Perhaps that explains why tech companies, besides creating ever more apps and software for kids, are also catering to anxious parents. So from apps that run in the background of a smartphone or tablet to access online activity to fobs and bracelets, with location-sensing capabilities, and software that alerts parents via e-mail, when a child ventures into a forbidden area, a host of gadgets is now available for what many may call ‘online helicopter parenting’.
According to a recent study by Communicus, a research-based advertising consultancy in the US, two-thirds of US children aged 2 to 5 use tablet PCs, while a third own a gadget of their own. A whopping 43% from a sample size of over 2,000 adults and 1.400 children (aged 6 to 17) have asked their parents for an iPhone.
Closer home, the India Tweens, Teens and Technology 2014 report by Internet security firm McAfee showed that 52% of respondents accessed social media accounts at school, even though most schools ban the use of mobile phones. One in three youngsters had reportedly experienced cyber-bullying.
So entrepreneurs like Bharat Gulia are creating products like his Eddy tablet for kids. This tablet is meant for 2- to 10-year-olds and comes with an in-built software that gives parents a report of their kids’ activities and allows them to set online time limits.
The ideal solution, however, is greater parental involvement in children’s online lives, says American child advocate Jim Steyer, in his recent book, Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age. Steyer warns that children face perils of relationship issues, body-image issues, addiction and privacy concerns online. He recommends technology time-outs and restrictions on smartphones.
“Parental supervision along with responsible content is essential, as kids often pick their role models from what they see,” says Mona Singh, vice-president of Sesame Workshop India, an organisation that develops educational content through TV, radio, community radio, digital and outreach programmes for children under nine years of age. “Since technology will be consumed by kids, the best option is to develop a lot of kid-appropriate content.”
Amitabh Vira, CEO of IT consulting and development company NetProphets Cyberworks, takes a contrary view. “It is the adult mindset that differentiates any inflow of information as good or bad,” he says. “Kids today are growing up with technology and they are looking for information.”
Research has shown that young users of technology can outsmart their parents, so the idea of building firewalls too seems pointless. “We are living in a time when political parties can win or lose elections over WiFi,” says Vira. “Youngsters want technology as part of their natural consumption.”
Adds Dr Yann Poncin from the Child Study Centre at Yale University: “Unless the child has proven to be particularly unwise, parents should not turn to policing their kids. The ideal way is to let kids use their judgment and have trust in it.”
There is, in fact, a term for the anxiety parents feel about their children’s online lives.
Juvenoia was coined from the words juvenile and paranoia to describe the exaggerated fear that the Internet and current social trends could have negative effects on children.
“We are living in a Catch-22 world. Parents want their kids to learn using interactive technology but they don’t want them to watch YouTube,” says Ateeq Ahmad, senior vice-president for product and marketing analytics at Proprofs.com, which provides comprehensive online tools. “While many youngsters are consuming a lot of media that they shouldn’t, the fact remains that app developers try to operate in certain search engines to minimise the content not suitable for kids. If you notice, in a kids’ app, the advertisements too will be suitable for kids.”
Ahmad is against the idea of monitoring too. “There are various automated filters for a library of bad words but they sometimes block other relevant sites too,” he says. “It’s important to be judicious and trust the developers and their research to provide content best suitable for kids. Practically speaking, if there can’t be a control on television, why should you control the Internet.”
Another concern that plagues parents is addiction. “Technology is addictive and it was one of our concerns while developing a kids’ gadget,” says Gulia. “While we exhort parents to set time limits, it’s also true that every age comes with its set of addictions. During my grandfather’s time, it was playing cards; today it is the online games.” Adds Ahmad: “We are all addicts; it’s about how we manage our addictions.”
Counsellors and child psychologist warn that tools should not replace the human touch.
“There never was and never will be an application to replace parenthood,” says personality development mentor Rita Gangwani. “Parents are so busy tracking and checking electronic devices that there is no time left for conversations. These devices, howsoever advanced, keep the kids indoors and take away the joys of running in the park and playing in the colony compound, which are an important part of the child’s physical and social development.”
That technology is restricting activity is evident from the fact that the Japanese government is introducing Internet fasting camps. In a country of 500,000 web-addicted teens, the idea is to encourage youngsters to enjoy the outdoors.
“I’m seeing a very unhealthy trend — that parents have no time for parenting and feel guilty. As a result they come up with defensive tactics to reassure themselves and feel a false triumph in getting hold of a gadget that records the daily activities of the child. But, the gadget can never make the child feel protected, and therefore creates a bigger gap in the parent-child relationship,” says psychologist Pulkit Sharma.
Badri Sanjeevi, CEO of Mauj.com, recently launched Appystore.in, which caters to new-age parents. “It’s ideal that kids are exposed to content that has been carefully chosen for them. Studies show that we can accelerate the process of learning by using technology,” he says.
Adds Raghuvesh Sarup, director of marketing for Microsoft mobile: “Parents also form peer groups on instant messengers to consult experienced peers about common issues. Access to real-time information on search engines answers many queries that a parent may have. Apps also play a big role in helping parents.”