SHOULD our children be allowed to have smartphones in school? Should they be allowed to have Wifi enabled devices at all? At what age should they be allowed such gadgets? Is it just a gadget or a necessity? And, who should develop the relevant policy, a nanny-state or a tiger-mum?
Admittedly, this is not a new subject. It is, however, a recurring and relevant one. Time and again, the subject of children’s Internet and social media access, use and literacy is forced into the limelight. It hits the headlines every time children get hurt or hurt themselves because of it.
It would seem that, if unsupervised access to the World Wide Web can endanger our young ones, we should restrict its accessibility the same way we do with alcohol and tobacco.
Then again, this doesn’t seem very realistic, does it?
In a not so distant past, in a time before digital communication technologies, grown-ups knew more than children and therefore were solely responsible for teaching them; a clear and straightforward top down affair. But the lines have been blurred. Most youngsters know much more about these modern technologies than their parents or teachers. A fact clearly demonstrated by the United Nations’ latest International Telecommunication Union figures, according to which over 80 per cent of 15 to 24 year old Malaysians use the Internet, compared with less than 50 per cent of the country’s total population. And, many simply use it and don’t bother explaining networks, apps and chat room tools to their not-so-savvy elders.
The issue of children’s access to new technologies has formed two camps with each firmly entrenched in their position, and each relying as much on expert advice as on seemingly common sense.
On one side of the divide, we have parents, teachers and policymakers who list very reasonable objection to free digital access for children. Avoidance of face-to-face communication, deterioration of social skills, constant distraction and shorter attention span, a surge in addictive behaviour, stress, anxiety and depression.
Parents, educators and government representatives also populate the other camp. They claim that a ban on handheld information and communications technology (ICT) during school hours is a 1950s response to a 2019 issue. It would inevitably lead to hidden and therefore dangerous use of devices. They argue for the education of children in a safe environment and responsible use of technologies, for empowerment to develop relevant skills and seize learning opportunities invaluable to them in their later careers.
National as well as private schools in Malaysia have gone over and beyond in an effort to provide access to Wifi and online learning for as many schoolchildren as possible.
Meanwhile, the education departments of countries such as France, Ireland and the United States are drawing up policies to restrict such access in libraries, schools, and even some universities and municipal buildings.
Many chief technology officers of Silicon Valley giants such as eBay, Apple, Google or Yahoo send their offspring to “screen-free” schools, without a computer in sight anywhere. These kids learn with paper, pencil, knitting needles and even mud. Their parents, employed at the very epicentre of information technology, seem to think that computers and schools don’t mix.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? It’s not for me to say. But one thing is for sure. As a parent, I know that I know nothing when it comes to ICT. I also know that this is a rather unsettling feeling.
Note that I don’t even touch on the subject of inappropriate content and malicious advertising here. For that is a whole other Pandora’s box.
As a parent, I also know that, should I be of the opinion that smartphones and other Wifi enabled devices have no place inside a classroom, I would greatly appreciate laws and regulations, which would enable me to simply say “sorry, kiddo, it’s illegal”.
Then again, were I to lean towards embracing wireless technology and smartphones in the classroom, I would feel very inadequate at supporting my children in their learning experience.
I would then definitely welcome school-run adult education classes taught by young digital tech and social media wizards.
As my son once said, “parents love paper”. But maybe it’s time for us to catch up with reality.
The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer
of the human condition and