Even as health and essential services warriors are fighting the Covid-19 crisis, for the office goers and their children, their entire world has shrunk to just their screens. Schools and educational institutions have taken to heavy reliance on technology to mitigate the educational disruption. It became imperative to find low-tech, distance learning approach, encouraging remote learning; thus, overnight; teachers and educators learnt and developed technological solutions, and instead of classroom teaching, took to platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet.
Let’s look at the impact of this phenomenon on children. With no possibility of outdoor sports, physical activities and personal, face-to-face interactions, everything has quickly moved to being offered online and thus leading to an unprecedented spike in the screen time for children. Studies say that 82 percent of the world’s learners are no longer in traditional schooling or education programmes.
There are advantages to this, of course. Besides remaining engaged with learning activities, technology helps children and youth stay in touch and connected with friends and extended family, helping them cope with their stress and anxiety and keep up with their progress intellectually. Online learning and discussion groups greatly reduce isolation. But is this a temporary new norm or is this something that has come to stay in our lives?
Let’s also look at the disadvantages. It is found that children are spending more time online due to school shutdowns, which could lead to long-term effects, including decreased attention span, lower cognitive development and mental health concerns. There are more chances of exposure to online sexual exploitation, violence and bullying.
According to ‘Europol’, law enforcement partners are reporting “increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material,” as a result of Covid-19. At the same time, there are safeguarding procedures to mitigate any risks posed by the increased use of technology. Physical distancing and lack of face to face interaction has led to children taking risks or doing things they might otherwise not do online, sharing sexual photos for instance, without knowing that these actions can also risk criminal consequences. Increased screen time can cause increased sedentary behaviour in children such as decreased metabolism, disturbance in sleep cycle, more distractability and reduced overall well-being,
Like adults, children’s right to privacy also gets invaded due to the increased use of online mediums. Most children do not know how to protect data on their mobile or other gadgets; and personal details and information that may not usually be shared online, often gets easily accessed and exploited by marketing forces.
The question we face is: Are we ready to maximise all the gains that the technology and internet has to offer and do we know really how to minimise the potential harm it could have on children? Have we assessed the entirely new set of challenges that this heavy reliance on technology is going to bring and how it is changing the way we care for our communities, our children and youth?
For many families below poverty line, the inability to afford devices and lack of internet connectivity, has kept them excluded from the online learning process. This has left them demotivated and falling further behind their peers. The vulnerable communities in urban settings, may still have some bit of scope, in being able to leverage these new solutions and platforms, being in the category of JAM: Jan Dhan, Aadhar and Mobile, a somewhat privileged in a series of inequality, as compared to their brethren in rural or hilly settings, who are singularly bereft of any technological privileges. In extreme situations, because of loss to livelihoods and increasing poverty, they could instead be subjected to either trafficking or domestic jobs, or to early marriages.
Even for children in middle class families, the ability to provide all children with good devices and connectivity during all times has been an added burden and impossible at times. Even though today’s times are such that the internet and computers are a necessity and not a commodity of leisure, we must keep in mind the ground realities in our country where in many villages, even electricity supply is disrupted. Even in urban India, some families may share one computer; others may not own a computer at all. We need to find ways through partnerships with government, business, and educational systems to provide computers and Internet access for all learners. During this pandemic, Internet service providers can support by offering their services for free or at reduced rates for low-income families, at least during the lockdown period. The tough times can be tided over only with collective action and adapting to the new change that does not further marginalise the have-nots.
Surfing with safety
Most experts advise that the family and caregivers make their own rules for use of gadgets and internet and abide by them and ensure use of age appropriate platforms, games and social media channels. Adults must take children along with them in making the decisions to decide the boundaries and limitations and conversing them about the advantages, disadvantages, risks and safety measures. Monitoring and regulating the time spent online by children is imperative where simple rules that do not allow use of mobile during dinner or any other time are easy to follow. Listening to children about their concerns and challenges is also vital in creating a positive attitude to controlling them.
All parents, adults and caregivers must familiarise themselves with the online safety measures and tools and only then will they be able to teach them to their children. Being acquainted with the reporting mechanisms in cases of abuse and grievances also helps avoid delays. The earliest detection and prevention of abuse and distress can go a long way in healing the child and controlling the damage. Finally, accepting the advantages and disadvantages of internet and technology during the lockdown and thereafter, coupled with its right use can help make the most use of them and contribute to the overall well-being of children during the COVID-19 crisis.
The writer is the managing founder trustee of Udayan Care, and has been working for children and their causes for 26 years now
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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