Digital Childhood and the role of schools to ensure a safer and healthy online experience

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Staff Reporter

Over the past decade, technology has significantly transformed how we live, work and communicate. For parents, its impact has been especially profound. The mental health crisis among young people is alarming, with social media emerging as one of the significant contributing factors.

“Social media amplifies free will to an unprecedented degree, allowing our thoughts and actions to follow any path we choose, often driven by our desires. During the critical developmental stages of children, namely the adolescent phase, teenagers’ minds are still maturing.

“Given their heightened need for social acceptance, it is concerning to permit such unrestricted autonomy as is increasingly the norm,” says Nasrin Kirsten, Group Psychologist at The Independent Institute of Education, who oversees Student Wellbeing at ADvTECH Schools, SA’s leading private education provider.

Kirsten points out that despite the age limit of 13 on platforms such as TikTok, Facebook, and Snapchat, many younger children still manage to access these apps. She questions the adequacy of this age limit given the nature of the online content, suggesting it should be raised to better protect young users, as there is no assurance that these platforms are safe.

Furthermore, she believes that allowing children to bypass these restrictions is deceitful and emphasises the importance of parents engaging in conversations with their children about their social media use.

“Adolescents spending over six hours daily on social media are twice as likely to experience anxiety and depression, with half reporting negative body image impacts. High phone usage also exacerbates cyberbullying, child predation, and self-regulation issues. Social media can harm teenagers’ self-worth through upward social comparison, leading to decreased well-being and mental health problems” (DeAngelis, 2024).

Sir Ken Robinson’s statement, “There is nothing inherently social about social media,” highlights how it connects Generation Z globally while disconnecting them physically, affecting their well-being.

“Therefore, social media apps might benefit from warning labels, like those for tobacco and alcohol. Legislative measures and comprehensive social media education are crucial to protecting, guiding, and shielding children.

“Guiding students to become responsible digital citizens requires a multifaceted approach. They need education on navigating the digital world and dealing with online interactions, like learning to ride a bike or drive a car. Without adequate guidance, smartphones can be as dangerous as roads filled with obstacles. The harms of this digital road are due to unleashing powerful technology without adequate safety measures, transparency, or accountability.

“Teaching children how to use cell phones involves creating rules for online behaviour and empowering them to communicate responsibly through innovation and creative collaboration.”

 Kirsten says social media education must be deliberate, prioritising the safety of learners both in the classroom and at home.

Kirsten points out that schools should foster environments promoting mental and physical well-being. This includes challenging the status quo of today’s mobile generation by ensuring that classroom learning and social time are phone-free experiences.

Stricter regulations may face resistance, but children can learn to appreciate these environments while enjoying technology’s positive aspects. Schools should continue developing frameworks to empower learners as positive digital citizens, promoting ethical online behaviour and healthy boundaries.

“Schools and parents must work together to foster respect, kindness, and responsibility online and offline. Parental guidance includes open conversations about responsible social media use and the importance of reporting cyberbullying.

“Parents should monitor online activity, block harmful content, and create phone-free zones at home to promote better sleep and real-life connections. As the debate on banning mobile phones in schools continues, parents must set positive examples by reducing phone usage and engaging in meaningful dialogues about digital habits.

“By fostering offline activities and teaching productive mobile technology use, we can empower our youth to navigate the digital landscape safely and responsibly,” Kirsten says.

INSIDE EDUCATION

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