If you are the parent of a teenager, I have a question for you: are you a Facebook friend with your teenager? If your immediate answer is “yes”, then there is a follow-up question: are you sure? Has your teenager unfriended you? Are you paying attention?
When my older son was 13, I became his Facebook friend. Five years later, we are still friends (yes, I just checked!).
During that time, I have never interjected with embarrassing comments or questions about his friends, or the girls he might be dating, or his parties or football teams, etc. I just quietly remained in the background and observed.
That’s my approach. I have friends who are much closer to their kids online and friends who are much further apart. I choose a middle path: I am aware but not too close. After all, I’m not a teenager anymore, and when I post on social media, my kids usually say, “Nope, Dad, just NO — you are trying to be cool or trendy, but it doesn’t work!”
You must have read about an online game, or a “challenge” that is receiving a lot of attention in the news. I don’t want to name it because I don’t want to feed the panic and give more attention to it. This “challenge” has caused a lot of panic among parents of teenagers: are my kids safe, or will they fall victim?
There is a bigger question: what are we doing to protect and educate children who are immersed in online activities?
There is a school of thought that says: block them! Take away their devices! Remove their internet access! But is this realistic? I think the answer depends on the age of the students. In Kindergarten, it is practicable, and I would say desirable, to keep children off the internet. Some educators disagree with me and talk about the amazing power of the latest learning
apps. Many educators notice that children are getting plenty of “screen time” at home, including unsupervised screen time. So, the argument goes, shouldn’t we teach them how to use these devices properly while they are at school?
I feel differently. The first five years of life are a sacred time. I prefer to watch children learn about the real 3-dimensional world before they get exposed to the virtual 2-dimensional world.
I prefer to watch them learn how to use their fingers and their senses and how to socialize, communicate, and make language before they learn how to click and surf the net. That is our philosophy at KC High.
In the Primary Years, ages 6 – 11, we start to see a gradual introduction to devices and their power. Today I watched a magnificent lesson where 6-year-olds were learning how to draw with Tux Paint. Believe me, the kids were absolutely thrilled, but after 40 minutes, it was back to their classrooms, and to pencils, stories, and crayons — which are equally fun.
But when secondary school comes along, the power and usefulness of e-learning is undeniable. Now we need a balanced approach. There are times when the internet should be available and times when it should be blocked. If kids want to learn about black holes, can you do better than Kurzgesagt? If kids want to learn about the Cosine Rule, can you do better than Khan Academy?
We need to let kids experience the internet. Learning in the modern world requires it. However, it is also important for parents, teachers, and responsible adults to be involved and to pay attention.
As they explore their online worlds they need to be connected to real people - family and friends they can talk to, hug, or sit on the couch with and watch a movie.
Admittedly, teenage depression and suicide are growing problems. But the best way to prevent them is to consider these questions: do you talk to your children about how they use the internet? Is your child part of a caring school community where she has good friends? Is your child part of a loving family that spends time with him and pays attention? If the answers to these questions are affirmative, then your child is relatively safe online, and mosquitoes are a bigger threat to your child’s health than online predators.
Mick Purcell is the head of school at KC High, Chennai. He teaches mathematics, creative writing, elementary drama, disc sports, reputation management, and Rubik’s cube.
He has 3 beautiful children and a lovely wife, but he dreams about climbing mountains and getting away from it all. You can email him at email@example.com.