The Virtualization of Childhood

LAKSHMI on October 14, 2014

Internet usage amongst the world’s population has more than doubled between 2005 and 2013, from 16% to 39%. Given that the world population was 6.916 billion in 2013, this statistic points to a whopping 2.7 billion people entangled and engrossed in an expanding mesh. A recent study of media literacy among children shows that although children (ages 5-15) in general continue to watch television more than going online, tweens and early teens spend more time on the web than the box. 

Parent and child browsing on laptop

These children are most concerned about their image online – according to them, there were three frightening things about the net viz (a) “Bad things friends have written” about them (b) “Friends being nasty mean or unkind” to them and (c)  the pressure to “appear popular or attractive online”. The risk of gender stereotyping notwithstanding, girls appear to be more influenced by the internet than boys perhaps because of their natural proclivity to social image.

It is interesting that while parents restrict smart phone use time for children, there aren’t as many restrictions placed on the tablet, which, going by the many ‘l-o-l’-worthy online videos of infants and gadgets, has apparently emerged as a baby-sitter among many things. There is now also an increasing trend of using the tablet and other online devices to obtain information and knowledge for home and school work, a library-on-the-go, if you will.  This is a positive use of the internet among children but carries with it the onus of recognizing useful and reliable information against falsities. The absence of peer-review and censorship on the web makes it very easy for chaff to be sold as seed.

As with any emerging technology, there are more brickbats than bouquets to children using the net. The biggest concern is safety. The cyberworld mimics the real world, and the intersection of the two has been growing exponentially. The danger to children in cyberworld is just as real as in real world, or perhaps even greater because of the anonymity possible on the web and the lack of unifying rules and laws that govern and manage this parallel universe. Age-inappropriate information, cyber bullying and harassment are very real risks and must be taken seriously by the parent when a child enters cyberspace.

The internet media insurgence into childhood is a natural and real event.  As with any event involving childhood, the responsibility of safety and utility lies with the parent. The study shows that a parental role in educating children on internet safety is essential, and this, in turn, hinges on thoroughly understanding the risks and benefits of this medium.

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Photo credit: GSCSNJ / Foter / CC BY-NC