Digital technologies should be a right for children, but in order for them to exercise this right, they must be given the opportunity to access the technology, while stressing the importance of training them in healthy ICT use and promoting digital education for children and adolescents in terms of online crimes.
TEXT: ISABEL PRESTEL
In February 2021, Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, warned about the increased Internet use among children and adolescents. A problem that, although growing, was significantly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which “The lives of millions of children and young people were confined to their homes and their screens”, said Forte. She went on to say: “Children’s physical and emotional health is of increasing concern, and there is evidence to suggest that spending more time on the Internet leads to less outdoor activity, reduced sleep quality, increased symptoms of anxiety and unhealthy eating habits.
Other figures that have been appearing in recent months simply confirm the reasons for this concern. For example, according to a report by the Ministry of Health, 10.3 % of young people between 14 and 18 years of age gamble on the internet. And 52 % of adolescents practice vamping, in other words, they always or almost always check their electronic devices before going to sleep, a percentage that rises to 68 % between the ages of 15 and 17, according to a study conducted by the PiLeJe laboratory. In addition, minors are more exposed than ever to endless interaction with a high degree of anonymity, which can lead them to access content that is harmful or unsuitable for their age; for example, grooming, or sexual harassment by adults; and cyberbullying by peers.
Fighting the digital divide
On the other hand, we cannot overlook the fact that ICT has facilitated the schooling of millions of children during the health crisis because, as Henrietta Fore herself says, “Technology and digital solutions offer considerable opportunities for children, allowing them to continue studying and stay entertained and connected.” But we cannot forget that often the solution is the problem, at least for part of the population. This is what is known as the digital divide.
It is precisely this issue that Carmen Gayo, director of the Office of the High Commissioner for the fight against child poverty, spoke about at a conference organized by Fundación MAPFRE and Pantallas Amigas entitled Children’s rights and parental mediation in the digital context. Because, in Spain, for one in four children living in resource-poor households, it is not possible to live in a digital world, which requires connectivity —one in five households in Spain does not have broadband access—, equipment —235,000 households only have a cell phone to access the Internet—, and the ability and knowledge to use this technology. In this sense, Gayo declared that “If we want ICT to be a right for children, they must have the opportunity to access them.”
Early internet initiation
Borja Adsuara Varela, an expert in law, strategy and digital communication, expressed himself in a similar vein: “The greatest risk for minors right now is not being on the Internet.” Indeed, the use of ICT empowers them for a digital future, both occupationally and socially, but they need to have the appropriate tools and information to defend themselves. Because, according to the data at hand, it seems very likely that they will have to face undesirable situations. And this is a growing trend, if we take into account the fact that the age of technological initiation is getting increasingly lower. Specifically, Félix Barrio, deputy director of Cybersecurity for the INCIBE Society, the National Cybersecurity Institute, said that this stands at the age of nine. That is why there is so much emphasis on starting education in the proper use of technology from childhood. What Camino Rojo, director of Public Policy and Philanthropy at Twitter Spain, calls offering children “digital literacy”.
Minors are more exposed than ever to endless interaction with a high degree of anonymity, which can lead them to access content that is harmful or unsuitable for their age
It is up to parents to ensure that children are educated in the proper use of the Internet because, as Begoña Ibarrola, a psychologist, writer and specialist in emotional education, explains, just because they are “native users” does not automatically signify that this use will be “good”. In this sense, parental guidance rather than prohibition is essential. “If we avoid exposing them to the risks and dangers, they will not acquire the necessary tools. They must know how to overcome the bumps in the road.” And that is done, according to the psychologist, by working on their self-esteem, so that they never become slaves to “likes” or fall into the “tyranny of joy” to which Instagram often subjects them. However, as parents we are not always equipped for this, as can be deduced from the data provided by Violeta Assiego, general director of the Rights of Children and Adolescents of the Ministry of Social Rights and Agenda 2030, who claims that “Two out of three children perceive that adults do not believe them when they complain about a situation of online violence.”
Types of parental mediation
As adults, making the effort to digitally support our children pays off. Very much so. The data offered by Maialen Garmendia, principal researcher at EU Kids Online, an international network of reference in the study of childhood, adolescence and ICT, leaves no room for doubt.
Parents who mediate more frequently, as well as those who are more permissive in matters related to the Internet and social networks, are the ones who are more frequently aware of their children’s negative experiences in this area. These are the conclusions of a 2019 study on the three types of parental mediation: enabling, restrictive and inverse. Although the first, the most effective, is gaining followers, Garmendia recommends starting early with digital guidance. “In the same way that the use of digital devices and platforms is beginning earlier and earlier, so should the family’s mediation, in order to encourage safer and more responsible digital habits. We should not ignore the fact that children are more receptive to our recommendations than adolescents”, she concludes.
At Save The Children they also advocate “positive education”, focused on offering tools not only to children, but also to parents. This was confirmed by Lucía Martínez, head of Social Advocacy at Save the Children, for whom “control and supervision have greater limitations”. According to reports from this NGO, in 2020, 3,430 cases of online crimes with a child as the victim were reported, including grooming, cyberbullying and sexting without consent. And 75% of children and adolescents had suffered some kind of online violence at some time. Faced with these figures, only action, education and training are adequate.
The 10 commandments of digital health
- Do not abuse digital devices.
- Set aside time for disconnecting.
- Only follow the advice of professionals.
- Check that your sources of information are reliable.
- Use the information you find to take more and better care of yourself.
- Learn how to surf the net safely.
- Limit how much young children can use digital devices.
- Encourage a balance between the real and the virtual among young children.
- Do not share more than necessary on social networks.
- Teach older children how to use digital devices.
Fundación MAPFRE presents the ENDING project
School dropout is one of the main problems faced by the education system in the various European Union countries. One of the factors that has most impacted its increase in recent years is related to the inappropriate use of new technologies, both through misuse and abuse, as well as the risks associated with exposure to the digital environment at increasingly younger ages. The physical and psychological risks of abusing new technologies, together with misinformation or a lack of critical thinking, are an element of instability that can lead to school dropout, especially in the case of groups at risk of exclusion.
In this context, during the conference “Connected Citizenship”, Alicia Rodríguez Díaz from Fundación MAPFRE’s Health Promotion Area, presented the ENDING project, financed by the European Union through the Erasmus+ program. This project involves developing a method focused on promoting responsible use of new technologies by adolescents. To this end, different materials will be created for teachers, young people and families that will provide tools and knowledge to prevent situations of risk, always from the perspective of promoting children’s rights and with an emphasis on critical thinking and health as well as media and digital literacy.
The consortium carrying out this project, led by Fundación MAPFRE, comprises another four institutions from three European countries (Spain, Germany and Portugal) that have extensive experience in their field of activity: Pantallas Amigas, Policía Nacional, Universidad Politécnica de Oporto, Stiftung Digitale-Chancen.