It was Frederick Douglass who noted that “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Popular as this may appear, the possibility of its actualization requires some careful consideration. The children of today are leaders of tomorrow. There is no gainsaying that we live in a digital age; our lives are conditioned and controlled by digital technology. Most parents are digital immigrants, who are responsible for parenting children who are digital natives; well-schooled in the digital world than their parents. How, then, can they manage to carry out this imperative role of parenting the next generation of citizens?
One cannot overemphasize the importance of proper child upbringing in a digital age like we are in. Regardless of the perspective, there is noon-day clarity of the need for guidance in the use of digital technology. In the pre-ICT period, a child who has reached a certain age was taught how to drive a car. It is only after s/he had learnt to drive and passed the prescribed tests that s/he is afforded the opportunity to drive a car, of course with strict regulations during the initial periods. How things have changed!
Kids of these days drive on the “superhighway” of the Internet web, not only alone and unaccompanied but also without proper tutelage? It is, thus, imperative that parents better guide their children in the use of digital technology. Social media, online games, tablets, and mobile phones are common examples of such technologies as common with children. No doubt, digital technology affects all aspects of our lives; the way we communicate, learn and think. Just as the physical environment is important in the upbringing of the child, the digital environment needs to be safe and healthy for children to live in and develop.
There are numerous benefits of the use of digital technology on the upbringing of the next generation of citizens. One could at times even imagine how we were living without these tools. There are lots of educational materials and online libraries that are readily available and accessible to this current generation of the 21st century than abound in previous generations. More online resources are being added to the digital space at an alarming rate. Due to these many resources online, it is easier and more convenient for children to carry out various intellectual activities, including research, without having to step into a physical library or even ask for help or assistance from parents.
Children can explore new knowledge and with proper guidance, they are able to satisfy their curiosity in any aspect of knowledge. In early childhood education, technology use is encouraged, as it fosters the development of hand-eye coordination and strong motor skills. The use of online games and apps that improve cognitive skills, most of which rely on the speed of movements of the children encourages their creativity. These computer games also encourage the ability to put together clues and fosters-problem solving skills. The skills acquired can help the child as s/he grows and develops through the academic life course and later in the working life.
Another way technology use can be beneficial to the next generation of citizens is in the building of social networks or online communities. The social networks that the Internet promotes can help kids learn how to interact and cooperate with each other. The 21st-century children can share interests in technology such as using Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups and the likes to communicate, build team spirit and exchange ideas.
Despite these positive impacts of technology usage, there is a “negativity impact” dimension, which can arise from misuse, overuse or unsupervised use of technology, or unlimited access to the Internet. These could adversely affect the child’s social skills, mental and physical development. Such negative effects include lower attention span caused by spending enormous amount of time on digital technological devices leading to concentration difficulties, health problems, sleeping disorders, cyberbullying, minimized social interaction amongst others.
Where is the irreplaceable role of parents in this scheme of things? Parents set rules to guide the use of digital technology by their children and wards. The children should be monitored while they use social media, so that they can be protected from bullies and predators online. Just as parents know their children’s friends offline, they also need to know their friends online.
To realize this, parents also need to leverage digital technology for effective parenting in the digital age. Parental controls could be installed on children’s devices to prevent them from accessing websites that are harmful to children. When not in use, devices should be turned off. Switching off screens an hour before bedtime could be a laudable practice. It is advisable to designate time for the media-free zone for instance while having dinner and ensuring that bedrooms are media device-free. Children also need to be helped to imbibe values so that, even when the parents are not physically present, they would know the right actions to take, even without being told what. Parents should teach good online manners and etiquette so that children learn how to treat others with respect online and not find cyberbullying as an interesting act.
Finally, children learn more by watching what their parents do than they do from what they say. Therefore, it is necessary that parents limit their own use of social media and technology gadgets. Unlike the previous generations, children today have earlier and more regular contact with technology. Hence, these training must commence early in their upbringing. Our next generation of citizens will never know a world without the connective power of the Internet and continuous exchange with the rest of the world.
Should parents shield their children from the use of digital technology? This would be an exercise in futility. This is neither advisable nor possible because technology usage has become a way of life as it is, today, impeded in each individual’s work and family. In as much as digital technology will impact the next generation of citizens, what is of utmost importance is that we capitalize on the intellectual, physical, and social benefits that come with it while minimizing the attendant risks.