Bernardo M. Villegas
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Moral Guidance on Digital Technologies (Part 1 & 2)

          The Philippines may have one of the lowest GDP per capita figures in East Asia (higher only than Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia).  What is amazing is that Filipinos spend the most time using social media, according to a recent report of Stastista, a German market and consumer data company.   Among 46 markets, the Philippines spent the most time connected to social networks, devoting an average of four hours daily to digital social space.  Nigeria comes second with 3.75 hours, India 2.5 hours and China 2 hours.  It is interesting to note that people in developed countries spend less hours on the average, principally because they are rapidly ageing.  Countries like the Philippines with a young and growing population have a much larger segment of their population who are from 16 to 24 years old, the ones who drive the growth of demand for social media.  One would be hard pressed to find more than 3 out of 100 Filipinos who do not have a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account!

         Digital devices and services are among those significantly benefited by the pandemic.   The demand for them has skyrocketed as people increasingly turn to remote communication  in almost all aspects of daily life, from giving or attending classes, participating in business and all sorts of meetings, ordering goods or services online and having access to audio-visual entertainment.  Already before the pandemic, smartphone penetration as share of the Philippine population was around 57.6 percent in 2019, projected to grow to about 77.1 percent in 2025.  I wouldn’t be surprised that as a result of the change in lifestyle caused by the pandemic, that figure in 2025 could be closer to 100 percent.   In 2019, according to a Nielsen study, 70.7 million Filipinos accessed the internet through their mobile phones.  The forecast for 2025 stood at 89.48 million, representing some 80 percent penetration.  Filipinos spend close to 3 hours daily using their smartphones, making the Philippines one of the fastest growing markets for smartphones in Southeast Asia.

 

         The preponderance of digital devices and services in the Philippines can be both bane and boon.  As pointed out in an article by Juan Carlos Vascones.in the eBook entitled “New Technologies and Christian Life,”  the millennials and centennials (those born after 1980) have been brought up in an interconnected world unfamiliar to their parents when the latter were growing up.  They gain instant access to the internet, social networks, chat rooms and video game consoles.  As we teachers have realized especially during the lockdowns when all our classes were delivered online, the learning ability of the youth (as early as kindergarten) in the new technologies progresses at the same breakneck pace as the development of the technologies themselves.  From an early age, children and young people who constitute the majority of the Philippine population, are exposed to a world seemingly without borders.  This situation requires a great deal of parental guidance so that the harmful effects of these technologies do not predominate.  I was especially struck by a report on the U.S. government efforts to clean up the content of such social networking enterprises as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  When it was pointed out that some pornographic websites were using children to lure users of these sites, some of the perpetrators of these despicable practices involving child abuse had the temerity to justify their immoral behavior by claiming that these websites employ a lot of people.  This showed how some people in the social networking industry have completely lost their moral sense.  For them the end justifies the means.

 

         Don’t get me wrong.  I am a great admirer of the benefits conferred by the digital age to modern day living.  As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote, digital technology “if used wisely, can contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being.”  At the same time, however, we cannot ignore hard facts about some of the ill effects of social media.  For example, children’s overexposure to screens has been tied to health risks such as obesity, and aggressive or disruptive behavior at school.  Digital technology is shaping to a great extent our lives today.  Parents must be especially aware of the beneficial and harmful influences of the constant use of smartphones and other digital devices so that their constant use can be  a means of cultivating the appropriate values and virtues that will strengthen the character of the youth today.  It is providential that the pandemic has literally forced parents to be much more involved in the education of their children as learning online, while the children are at home with the parents, necessarily requires the cooperation and guidance of the parents.  More than ever, the theory that parents are the first educators is becoming a real practice as blended learning becomes part of the new normal.

 

         Parents cannot just focus on the scientific or academic content of what their children are learning online.  More important are the moral guidelines that, in partnership with the teachers, parents have to give to their children, especially in the virtuous use of digital technology.  It is part of the task of education for parents to help their children behave virtuously in the digital world, showing them that it is also an environment where they can express their Christian identity.  It is not a matter of setting hard and fast rules about the use of digital technology.  It is more important that parents help the young people grow in virtues which they can apply to the rapidly changing digital world.  Only then can they come to lead a good life, putting order in their passions and exercising control over their actions, joyfully overcoming the obstacles that prevent them from growing in virtues in the digital world.  As Pope Francis has indicated, “the issues are not  principally technological.  We must ask ourselves:  are we up to the task of bringing Christ into  this area, or better still, of bringing others to meet Christ?”

 

         A very important decision parents should make, in consultation with the teachers, is the appropriate age at which children can start using digital devices so that they are not put unnecessarily at risk, depending on the maturity they have attained.  Serious consideration must be given to include the use of filtering technology in devices so as to protect the children as much as possible from pornography, violence and other moral threats.  Of course, as they grow and mature, the most unfailing filter is the cultivation of a virtuous life, with special emphasis on the virtues of prudence, temperance and fortitude.  The family environment is the school of virtues, which grow through education, deliberate acts and persevering efforts, strongly reinforced by the example given by the parents and older siblings.  For Christians, recourse to divine grace through the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist help to purify and elevate the human virtues.  Parents must be reminded that virtues cannot be lived in isolation.  For example, helping children not to give in to whims and caprices regarding food or games will also help them to behave better in the digital world and vice versa.  Needless to say, the example from the parents is the most effective means of cultivating virtues in their children.  The parents must be the first ones to show moderation in the use of the new technologies.  For example, by paying attention when speaking with the children; putting the newspaper aside; turning down the television; making eye contact with the person speaking; not checking messages on the smartphone.  When the conversation is important, devices should be turned off so that it is not interrupted.  It is an axiom that education requires prudence, understanding, a capacity to love and concern for giving good example.  (To be continued).

 

 

Moral Guidance in Digital Technologies (Part 2)

January 12, 2021

 

         Blended learning may be part of the new normal as educators and pupils will continue to use online learning even when face to face classroom instruction will already be permitted once the pandemic is put under reasonable control.  For those belonging to the and D and E households (about 60 percent of the population), because of lack of internet facilities, much of the work at home may still be done through printed modules which may actually help some of the parents (and grandparents) in these households improve their own literacy and numeracy as they struggle to assist their respective children (grandchildren) cope with their homework. For those households belonging to the A, B, C market segments (with monthly family income of P20,000 or more), there will be a greater challenge to help children moderate their use of all types of digital devices as they progress in the educational ladder from elementary to high school.  Especially for these more economically endowed families, it should be considered that childhood is the time to begin practicing the virtues and the right use of freedom to help them derive the greatest benefit from the new technologies and avoid the pitfalls.  I summarize below some very important guidelines found in the e-Book entitled “New Technologies and Christian Life” found in the website opusdei.org. 

 

         Although any general rule can always have some exceptions, the experience of many educators is that when children are very young it is better for them not to have advanced electronic devices (tablets, smartphones, laptops).  In order to instill temperance and detachment, it is advisable that these devices are owned by the family as a whole and are used in shared places, except those that are necessary for blended learning.  Parents should devise a plan to help the children be moderate in their use of them, with family rules that protect other critical times for family life, individual study, and rest.  Children must be taught the value of direct human contact, which no technology can replace.  It is especially important that children be closely guided in the use of the internet.  There should be opportunities for deeper conversations while helping them to check the internet together, “wasting time” playing on a console or fixing the settings on a smartphone.  It is best that children do not have devices which are constantly connected to the internet.  It is better to follow a specific plan, with clearly set times and places for internet access (disconnecting the devices or turning them off at night). At the primary school level, it is prudent for teachers to limit giving assignments which require frequent use of search engines.

 

         A more challenging period is when the children reach adolescence.  They tend to forcefully claim spheres of freedom that often they are not yet ready to handle with responsibility.  Educating teenagers to use freedom with responsibility is a difficult task but must be faced squarely by parents.  As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stressed, “educating means providing people with true wisdom which includes faith, in order to enter into relationship with the world;  it means equipping them with sufficient guidelines in the order of thought, affections and judgments.”   The key to succeeding in this difficult task is dialogue.  Rules cannot just be handed from above.  It is important to explain the “whys” of certain ways of behaving which may be perceived by young people as overly rigid.  They must be made to realize that limits are not curtailments of their freedom but are strong affirmations that help them forge an authentic personality, enabling them to go against the current.  It is more effective to show how attractive virtue is right from the start, appealing to the magnanimous ideals that fill the hearts of young people, the great loves that move them:  loyalty to their friends, respect for others, the need to live temperance and modesty, etc.  They must be shown how attractive virtue is. 

 

         The parents’ work becomes easier when they are fully aware of their children’s interests.   Without giving their children the sense that they are “spying” on them, parents must generate enough confidence for them to feel comfortable talking about what attracts them,  to know what interests them and, where appropriate, spending time with them and sharing in their interests.  For example, parents should follow closely the blogs of their children and take interest in what they write about and when opportune give them feedback. Adolescence is also the appropriate age to teach children how to be temperate in the use of devices, gadgets and software (applications, etc.).  Parents need to teach children how to live detachment, not only because of the cost of hardware and software, but also to avoid being dominated by feelings, going from one thing to another without discernment in constant search for what is fashionable.  It is never too early to teach children how to appreciate what is truly good and beautiful.   Knowing how to explain the “why” does not require advanced technical knowledge.  In many cases, the advice children need on how to act in the digital world is the same required for their behavior in society:  good manners, modesty and decency, respect for others, guarding their senses (especially the eyes), self-control. 

 

         Finally, it is important to help children appreciate the meaning of true friendship.  If it is common sense that they should not begin a conversation with the first person they encounter on the street, neither should this happen on the Web.  They must be convinced that what is published on the internet is usually accessible to countless people anywhere in the world, and that almost all actions carried out in the digital environment leave a trail that can be accessed through searches.  The digital world is a vast space that children need to learn  to navigate with naturalness, but also with a lot of common sense.  Effective and open family communication will help children understand these realities about the digital world, creating an atmosphere of trust in which they can voice any questions and resolve uncertainties.  This, of course, presupposes that the parents are the very first to demonstrate restraint, wisdom and common sense in the use  of social media.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.