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Children born in the first decades of the Third Millennium are instantly introduced to an interconnected world that was generally unknown to their parents and more so to their grandparents when they were growing up. As early as at the age of two, the millennials have ready access to the Internet, social networks, chats rooms and video game consoles. They absorb digital technology by osmosis and their learning ability in this area advances at the same breakneck speed as the development of these new technologies. I can still remember my visit to the innovation center of Samsung in Seoul and was in awe with the products of the future: washing machines, cooking ranges, TVs, and all types of appliances all equipped with androids. I don’t think my guide was exaggerating when she said that you only have to whisper “adobo” and it will be served hot to you.
In this column, I will summarize some very valuable advice given by a communications specialist named Juan Carlos Vasconez. The digital world offers a lot of benefits to make daily life more comfortable and efficient. There are, however, risks that make parental closeness and guidance even more necessary than before. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, this 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, though, there are dangers that cannot be ignored: children’s over-exposure to screens that have been tied to health risks such as obesity, and aggressive or disruptive behavior at school.
The problem cannot be solved by coming out with rules and regulations. There is no alternative to helping children develop certain virtues, like those of prudence and temperance, as well as detachment from material goods, that can help them lead a good life, putting order in their passions and exercising control over their actions, cheerfully and perseveringly overcoming the obstacles that prevent them from growing in virtue while navigating the digital world. As Pope Francis said, “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?”
At the same time, children should not be exposed to unnecessary risks. Parents have to study when it is appropriate for their children to start using digital devices, and which are more in accord with the maturity that they have attained. There may be circumstances that would warrant the use of filtering technology in devices, to protect the children as much as possible from pornography and other threats, knowing at the same time that a virtuous life is the only unfailing and ultimate filter and that is available at all times. 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, consoles). Also, to help develop in the children the virtues of temperance and detachment, it is advisable that these devices belong to the family as a whole and are used in shared places. Parents should come out with a plan to help children to be moderate in their use of these devices, with strict family schedules and rules that protect other critical times for study, rest and family life, and that facilitate order in the use of time.
It is also important to teach children the value of direct human contact without any intervention of digital technology. As early as possible, they should be guided as they travel through the digital environment lest they hurt themselves or others. Time can be spent checking the internet together, “wasting time” with them playing on a console or helping to fix the settings on a smartphone. These are opportunities to bond with them and engage in deeper conversations. As can be read in a document of the Pontifical Council For Social Communications, “Parents and children should discuss together what we see and experience in cyberspace. It is also useful to share with other families that have the same values and concerns.” This sharing with other families is especially facilitated in schools in which the parents are very much involved in the educational programs, such as the schools run by the Parents for Education Foundation (e.g. Southridge, Woodrose, Northfield, Rosehill, Springdale, Southcrest, Westbridge, etc.) or in Montessori schools.
When they are still in grade school, it is best for the children not to have devices that are constantly connected to the Internet. It is advisable to have a specific plan with clearly set times and places for Internet access, disconnecting the devices or turning them off at night. While children need to be taught to protect themselves from dangerous situations, they also need the peace of mind that comes from knowing they can always turn to their parents for help. This will happen if the parents have cultivated true friendship with their children, especially critical in these turbulent times. As St. Josemaria Escriva, Founder of Opus Dei taught, “the ideal attitude of parents lies more in becoming their children’s friends—friends who will be willing to share their anxieties, who will listen to their problems, who will help them in an effective and pleasant way.” I know of young fathers who cultivate this close friendship with their sons by organizing father-and-son clubs that engage in sports like basketball and football and in organizing mountain climbing and other types of excursions during weekends and summer vacation period. There are even more mothers who have organized girls’ clubs where mothers can spend a lot of time with their daughters in all types of hobbies and leisure activities.
As Mr. Vasconez, wrote: “Depending on each child’s age, it is crucial to have deep conversations about guiding their affections and about true friendship. It is good to remind children 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. If no child would begin a conversation with the first person encountered on the street, neither should this happen on the Web. Effective and open family communication will help children understand all this, and create an atmosphere of trust in which they can voice any questions and resolve uncertainties.” For comments, my email address is email@example.com.