Centre for Internet & Society

When 14-year-old Manish sits behind his laptop, punching away at keys, his facial expressions reflecting his various online interactions, his parents stand in the doorway, watching curiously. Their son is physically at home, but to all purposes, lost in the limbo of the Internet. By all standards, Manish is a good, responsible young adult but his parents worry because they don’t seem to have any control over Manish’s online life. They find it difficult to understand the digital realms that he seamlessly integrates into his life.

As young people across the country are creating these new hybrid physical-digital spaces of work, leisure and lifestyle, the “analogue generations” remain outside, concerned about how they can ensure that their children are safe online, and not abusing the power of this largely unregulated space. 

Their paranoia is amplified by the stories of uncontrolled access to pornography, of children falling prey to sexual predators, fears of intellectual property theft, and subversive and violent mobilisations that the young orchestrate through these online networks. The need to regulate, control and design this digital environment that so many of these young people inhabit is countered by their own ignorance and lack of control over these spaces. Technological solutions, like cyber-nannies and filtering software that prevent access to websites that can have questionable content, have eventually proven to be futile preventatives. 

Attempts at technology-based censorship are useless because these young people, digital natives, find ways to circumvent the attempts at controlling their access. It is clear that the solutions are outside of technology, and not very different from ways in which parents have always dealt with these questions. 

Here are the top five ways to do so, which do not require a parent to become a netizen overnight, but can get them involved and make sure young users of technology remain responsible, safe and canny in their interactions online. 

Monitored access: Instead of figuring out censorship software, parents need to learn that as with the TV, monitored access for younger users of the Internet is completely valid. Web 2.0 rhetoric promotes a strong sense of individualism and privacy and parents often feel like they are intruding on a child’s “private” time online. However, it is completely valid for parents to be in the same room and keeping an eye on what their child is up to while surfing. 

Limited time: Instead of trying to control the content, try and help the young person to efficiently manage time and digital resources. We live in a world where the impulse to stay constantly connected is very strong. However, there is no reason why the young user has to be online in all their free time. If they are given a specified number of hours a week to spend online, they learn to use their time more efficiently. Password-protect the computers, take limited expenditure accounts for their mobile phones and have strict rules (which everybody in the family has to follow) about interface access during family time. 

Shared computers: As computing becomes more personal, young users access the Internet from many computing devices like cellphones, personal laptops, etc. Studies have shown that young users who use shared machines kept in common areas of the house are less prone to accessing undesirable material online. Do not keep the computing devices in bedrooms. Use shared studies or quiet corners of the living room. 

Get digital and involved: One of the reasons why young people often do not communicate with parents about their technological forays is because the older generation professes a digital disconnect. Take this opportunity to initiate a two-way learning. Get your children to teach you on how to use certain platforms and websites, and in conversations, you might be able to educate them about responsible behaviour online. This peer-to-peer connection helps establish trust and a safe space to discuss problematic areas. Parents of teenagers who join social networks like Facebook and Tumblr, and get to be a part of the child’s life, often find new channels of communication opening up for them. 

Storytelling: Digital storytelling has huge potential for voicing concerns and problems. For these young people, the spaces provided online are safe spaces. They write freely, tell stories, create digital content, providing a gateway into what is happening in their lives. Recognise the creative potential of young users, appreciate their ability to tell these stories — through blogs, micro-blogs, audio and video podcasts, commentary on other content, etc. Getting them to tell stories and sharing your own with them makes for greater insight. Many cross-generational storytelling projects, where younger children tell the stories of the older people in the house, or write a combined blog have proven to be quite successful online. 

At the end of the day, it is good to remember that the problems that new technologies throw up are not necessarily new. The solutions need to be found in our everyday interactions and practices, and dependence on technological application is often counter-productive. Technology can only be a way by which solutions are implemented. 

The article by Nishant Shah was published in the Indian Express on March 11, 2011. The original can be read here

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