Growing up in a hyper-connected worldMany parents are increasingly worried by their children’s overuse of digital devices. Experts suggest setting limits to screen time.
Sushant can hold anyone spellbound with his tech-savvy skills.
He seems up to date on all the latest features of mobile phones and computer software, and keeps track of reading materials and games on the internet. If anyone in his family faces problems related to social media, he is the one to solve them. Sushant has most of the solutions to technological issues that his elders face.
“My son always finds a way for me when I get stuck while using Facebook. Even the neighbours call him up for solutions,” said Samjhana, Sushant’s mother. “In addition, he has learned to make creative videos for his YouTube channel. He once won a prize at his school for his creativity.”
Sushant, however, is a seventh grader. Just 12 years of age.
His mother may be proud of his skills, but she is equally concerned.
“It’s good that my son is learning a lot from the internet, but he can’t take his eyes off the mobile phone before and after school,” said Samjhana. “He gets enraged when I ask him to put the mobile away. On one hand, we are entranced by his creativity, but on the other, we are worried because of his fixation with the mobile phone.”
Like Samjhana, many parents of young children are increasingly worried because of the easy availability of the internet and digital devices.
A report by ChildSafeNet (CSN) and UNICEF Nepal states that 85.85 percent of children use the internet on mobile phones in Nepal. Another study done among 500 children, aged 13-17 years, in Kathmandu Valley in 2020 found that 82.77 percent of them owned either handheld devices or computers.
The pandemic-induced lockdown further increased the use of the internet among children. After the lockdown was lifted, 24 percent of children were found using the internet for more than 10 hours a day, compared to 7 percent of children using it prior to the lockdown.
Experts say that childhood is a critical time for social and emotional growth of children. However, the overuse of the internet not only makes them addicted but also leads to further mental and social problems.
“The children with internet addiction that I deal with have issues like sleeping disorders, loneliness, anxiety, aggression and depression,” said Karuna Kunwar, a psychologist at the Centre for Mental Health and Counselling Nepal. “Excessive dependency on the internet also brings educational, social and interpersonal problems in children.”
In addition to such problems, experts also say that children may be exposed to online abuse and various forms of cybercrimes.
“Children can be exposed to child pornography, harassment, phishing and cybercrime. They may also be targeted by hackers or people who wish to harm them,” said Haribol Acharya, an online safety campaigner, highlighting the potential risks that children face online. “As children spend more time online, they are more likely to be abused online. Technology isn’t here without risks.”
In the name of reaping advantages from technology and the internet, parents tend to provide mobile phones and tablets to their children from an early age. Children, however, cannot distinguish between the use and abuse of digital devices. Hence, experts say, parents need to intervene.
“Oftentimes, parents fail to see the negative aspects of the internet. Many also let children use the devices to distract them,” said Kunwar. “Cartoons and nursery rhymes have become the most preferred mediums for parents to distract children.”
Nursery rhymes are one of the most-watched YouTube videos with Pinkfong Baby Shark—a children's song known as Baby Shark Dance—amassing 10.7 billion views.
“Parents should allow children to use the internet and devices in a way that they don’t get hooked on to the devices. They must establish a healthy and balanced relationship with technology by making guidelines like tech-free times and zones at home, not giving devices for more than an hour,” said Kunwar. “After setting limits, children will spend less time on screens and more time on other important things.”
To address the issue of online abuse on the internet against children, Nepal Telecommunications Authority released Online Child Protection Directives, 2076, which states that parents must regularly monitor internet usage of their children.
Acharya emphasises that parents should supervise their children and play the role of facilitator for children during their screen time to mitigate the risk of online abuse by maintaining a friendly relationship with them.
“Parents should actively participate in their children’s screen time activities and facilitate them on what sort of search engines they should navigate or what kinds of stuff they should watch online,” said Haribol.
Experts and parents do agree—the internet can be a good servant but a bad master. They stress the need to engage children in alternative activities as opposed to handing them mobile phones ad lib.
“If digital devices are kept completely off the children, their learning might be affected. But overuse has its downsides. As parents, we should limit our children's screen time and provide them with alternatives,” said Basanta Gautam, a parent who has been writing on parenting for a long time. “If we instil these values in them from a young age, they will less likely become addicted to mobile and internet. I have done that while raising my daughter, and it really works.”