Parenting in the age of screens
It’s a sweltering Saturday afternoon and you’re at a crowded food court for lunch. You sit down at your seat and you hear the sounds of children screaming. You look over and see a toddler about the age of four throwing a tantrum and refusing to eat her food. Her father, clearly disgruntled, whips out his smartphone and hands it to her. As she taps away, he feeds her spoonful after spoonful, and you watch her chew and swallow her meal mindlessly, eyes glued to the screen in her hands the entire time.
Sounds like a typical weekend out, doesn’t it? No matter where we look, we’re likely to find children with smartphones and other electronic devices in hand, completely engrossed in the latest YouTube video trend or mobile game. In fact, in a survey conducted by Google, Singaporean children get their first Internet-connected devices at the average age of eight years — two years younger than the global average age of 10 years.
This trend, coupled with the rise of home-based learning during COVID-19, has resulted in a spike in children's screen time in the past year. Apart from negative physical consequences like eye strain and sleep deprivation, the increase in time spent online may also result in children discovering inappropriate websites, interacting more with strangers online or even falling prey to digital scams. So the question is, how do we keep children safe in this digital age?
We could use physical restrictions like parental control applications to limit the sites that children can visit, or we could go down the educational path and teach children to be wary of the dangers of the online world. We could also simply limit the time children spend on their devices. Of all the possible problems and solutions, what is it that parents and guardians struggle with and really want or need when raising their children in the time of screens and devices?
To find out, we teamed up with better.sg, a local non-profit, volunteer-run organisation that drives techforgood in Singapore to conduct a crowdsourcing campaign among parents, teachers, counsellors and other caregivers through an OPPi poll. As part of OPPi’s post-results analytics, respondents are clustered into groups depending on their answers. In this particular poll, a total of 93 participants were split into three main groups — A, B and C.
Based on the results of the poll, respondents shared a general consensus that they knew about the dangers of the online world and felt comfortable talking to their children about online safety, with 86% of respondents agreeing with both statements across all three groups. However, 70% of respondents still worry that their children might fall prey to online scams, especially when some of them can be very difficult to detect. One respondent shared that her son was scammed after he signed up to receive a free iPhone through a pop-up advertisement, while another said that they find it very difficult to teach their children how to avoid being scammed, and can only constantly remind their children not to play games with strangers online. But avoiding interaction with strangers online might be a difficult task, especially with so many popular multiplayer games like Among Us and Roblox popping up online.
When online personas can be created and altered with just a few clicks, it’s tough to truly know who exactly children are playing games with online, and just how many online friends children have. Thus, it’s no surprise that 29% of respondents agreed with the statement “I know who my children are friends with online”, with a further 16% left on the fence. Interestingly, 50% of the respondents in group B agreed with this statement, while 48% and 71% of respondents in groups A and C respectively disagreed.
This could be perhaps the children in group B are in their more formative years of life, and could thus be a bit more rebellious or secretive with what they do in their free time. It could also be because most of the children in group B were introduced to online games by their friends, leaving a bit of a divide between their parents and their gaming habits. Alternatively, it could also be because most of the children in group B have their own devices and are not supervised strictly by their parents when using these devices.
In response to this statement, one respondent shared that their students have mentioned that they made friends online, but only mentioned one or two names. To this, we personally feel that it’s impossible to know every single one of your children’s online friends, and that there isn’t really a need to, so long as they understand how to navigate their time online safely, and that we respect their privacy. After all, trust goes both ways — if we don’t trust children to make their own decisions, how can we expect them to trust us enough to come to us when they need help?
On the topic of trust, one of the most divisive statements in this poll was “I trust my child to navigate his/her online time safely”. To this, 33% of all respondents disagreed with a further 19% on the fence, and a large proportion of them come from groups A and B. Furthermore, many of these respondents currently use parental control applications or strictly supervise their children when they get screen time.
As the children in group A are relatively younger, it could be valid to say that they can’t be completely trusted to navigate the online world independently. However, the children in group B are older, with many owning their own devices, so why then are respondents still skeptical? Some shared that their children hide things from them at times, while others said that peer pressure to try new things online is a concern for them.
Conversely, respondents that have a greater trust in their children shared some of the ways in which they handle online safety at home. One respondent said that she constantly reassures and reminds her children that she will still love them no matter what mistakes they may make online. Another said that inculcating the right values and being open and honest about the dangers of the online world is key in cultivating habits of accountability in children.
No matter the approach currently taken to protect children, respondents would appreciate having a solid parental control application, but are also generally aware of the benefits of educating children. 77% of respondents expressed interest in having an application to help track their children’s digital footprint, but when asked how they would prefer to manage the dangers of their children’s online world, 42% said that they would want their children to be educated on and to navigate these dangers independently. Some said that they do or intend on using existing applications to protect their children once they get their own devices, while others shared that children can always learn to bypass applications and parental controls, so education is the best and only way to truly ensure their safety online.
At the end of the day, every child is different, and certain measures might work better with your children than others, so we shouldn’t try to argue that one solution is better than the other. If you ask us, there’s no better way to teach your children about what’s right and wrong or about what’s dangerous online than by allowing them to make their own mistakes. But hey, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to parenting. If you have any tips or tricks regarding screen time for children, or any concerns or struggles that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. Join our community group on Facebook and leave us a comment so that we can commiserate or celebrate with you!