Will the smartphone kill the innocence of our children?

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Does your child have a smartphone? Or you are among parents who can afford one but believe children shouldn’t use one? Whatever your belief, more kids are connected today than in the recent past and if you live in an urban centre, your child probably spend more adventurous time with a smartphone than you. So what are you going to do about this?

Despite the availability of mobile applications like Frontline SMS, Ushahidi for violence reporting and others for the protection of children online, there has been growing concerns for the use of smartphone among children, especially in Africa.  This concern was further confirmed when a study by UNICEF revealed that at least 75% of children communicate with strangers using their smartphones at least once a week. According to the report 42% of children who have access to smartphone do so every day. Besides, the reports also highlighted  the dangers that are inherent with the use of the smartphones among children and the need for parents, organisations working with children and peer-groups to educate young people about the potential risks of the digital world and how to avoid them.

So what usually goes wrong? Like in the real world, predators and perverts are on the prowl seeking for young people to devour. Social network sites abound and they hold strong appeal for youngsters to interact with strangers. Often, in their innocence, they share so much of themselves to share out not knowing the risks. Because they are also gullible, they are easily led away into new ways of thinking; arguably novel perception of things depending on what materials they are exposed to – it could be pornographic, religious fundamentalism, violent ideologies and the likes. Your gentle angel could suddenly become the next porn star or the vicious fanatic right inside your house without as much as ever travelling beyond five miles outside of your watch.  Blame the smartphone in a more connected world.

Concerned about the menace of child online abuses globally as it relates to cyber threats and cybersecurity, the International telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency that regulates telecommunications operations globally has initiated concerted efforts to check against online child abuse. Last year, it appointed the wife of the Nigerian President, Mrs. Patience Jonathan as ITU’s Child Online Protection (COP) Champion. Part of the tasks of COP champions is to help sensitise and mobilize global actions on the inherent dangers of children’s exposure to the web.

Unlike about a decade ago when phones were a rarity, phones are now not only ubiquitous but they are now smart and connected thus opening to everyone – young and old-  a vast ‘explorable’ world their forebears could not have imagined possible. Now parents must contend with the merits and evil of children using smartphones. While concerns about the safety and wellbeing of children in the cyberspace are forcing many parents not to give their children mobile phones, others consider this unhelpful when you consider what a great tool for development the mobile phone can be.

With recent advancements in information technology, children who own smartphones now have access to unlimited information – good and bad. They can access education content easily but then also, they can let time drift away chatting on social media platforms where they interact with friends and strangers. This is worrisome for parents who consider this phenomenon another digital distraction. A quick check reveals that many children have become addicted to online contents, some of which are provocative as a result of the availability of the smartphones that gives access to the internet on the go. Parents have limited or no power over what their children use the smartphones to do.

While some will argue that children can go to school on the phone and uncover insights their parents never had the privilege to access during their own time, the snag is that it is the wrong classes on the internet that attract these youngsters. As one study shows, porn sites, gossip blogs, hardcore musical sites and football web pages draw more visits from people under 18 that a site on history or sciences. This is both worrying for the ITU and parents all over the globe.  The internet which the smartphones ride on has spread information to the mass market bringing multimedia contents, including videos to a mass audience. Images and videos can be recorded and shared instantly making foul footages difficult to control. Of most recent is the gang rape of a 17years old mentally handicapped girl from South Africa, where the perpetrators recorded the footage via smartphones, and then shared through the social media.

The ITU has estimated that 2.7 billion people will be using the internet by the beginning of 2014, mobile broadband is clearly going to record the most explosive growth as it stands at 2.1 billion subscriptions globally. As appealing as the growth appears, there is a clear challenge in balancing the benefits of this mobile growth with the risks involved for youngsters. Parents understand the benefits of using the smartphones, and bought it for their children, but are also fearful over the consequences of cyber bullying, unsolicited contacts from strangers and access to inappropriate content.

 

Some school authorities have even developed the habit of not allowing their students access to the mobile phone while in the school premises. To these school authorities, the mobile phone is a complete distraction on the part of the child who should devote 90% of his time studying. “As Ota Ogefere, a parent in Magodo, Lagos puts it, “As long as school hours go, there will be no need for my child to have access to the mobile phone, children being who they are will begin to check Facebook and making unnecessary calls.” But what schools need to do is not to bury their heads in the sands like the ostrich. They need to confront the issues by educating students on the pros and cons. “Parents and educational institutions focusing on young people need to enlighten them on what constitutes evil online and when they should raise an alarm once they see the red flags,” said Mabelle Opkeho, a Jos based psychologist. For this to be effective, parenting need to make the child to see parents as his or her best confidant, she added.

According to a report by ACOPEA, a global organisation dedicated to online and offline protection of children, the number of youth in the African emerging market engaging the digital world is increasing at a very rapid rate, and that the numbers and growth in volume of young online browsers is keeping up with that of Europe. ACOPEA is a partner of the ITU’s COP initiative. Children are incredibly skillful at figuring out new technologies. While they may have technical knowledge, they are not always aware of some of the implications of using the technology.  The use of the internet and other communication technologies, such as smartphones continue to grow considerably within the African Union and offers all citizens great opportunities for participation, interactivity and creativity. However, risks to children and abuse of these technologies continue to exist, and as a result of changing technologies and societal behaviours, new risks and abuses continue to emerge.

While encouraging people, especially children, to exploit the opportunities and privileges of the internet via the smartphones, experts cautioned that ‘measures should also be adopted to protect the physical, mental and moral integrity of children, which might be impaired by their accessing inappropriate content through the use of the smartphones.’ This is where policy frameworks and laws are needed by governments to checkmate online predators. But the efforts must be concerted and also include the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), schools, and handset manufacturers.

Will smartphones make my kids smarter? Yes, it will. The smartphones evolution is good because of its potential of mobile learning functions that allow educators to reach underserved children that are geographically or economically disadvantaged. But this can only work with proper checks and balances. With the renewed efforts by the Nigerian first lady to champion child online abuse and cybersecurity, experts have called for the urgent need by the National Assembly to speedily pass the cybersecurity bill to enable Nigeria maintain a strong position in the global fight against cyber fraud and online abuse. Our children needs laws and dynamic parenting to fully and joyfully explore the cyberspace.


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