Teaching children values in the digital era

As the line between toys and technology blurs, how can parents teach their children valuesfor the virtual world, asks Tan Ly-ann

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 9:12am

A quick scan of toy stores gives an indication of the sea change that is taking place: Barbie dolls with built-in digital cameras, mobile phones for toddlers and app-enabled Lego sets are now standard for today's playroom.

Amid this rush to put technology into little hands, we also need to prepare them for a digitally connected world that many of us can barely fathom as adults.

Some parents are worried that their children spend far too much time online
Praise Ma, Teacher

We face a digital divide - a chasm between those of us who grew up when Barbie's latest accessory was Ken, and this generation of digital natives for whom toys and technology are indistinguishable.

In the past we learned in the playground how to size up the neighbourhood bully, but how do we teach our children to do the same online, where such physical clues and cues don't exist? Parents, grandparents and teachers used to be important sources of wisdom for dealing with life. But it is often difficult to find positive role models who can provide real-world solutions to challenges in the virtual world - like personal identity, social responsibility and data security.

At a family conference in February hosted by the Asia Education Resource Consortium in Chiang Mai, Thailand, many parents expressed how lost they felt about trying to keep children safe online and about when to teach youngsters the citizenship skills they would need as they grow up.

Leung Wing-yee, a stay-at-home mother, wanted to create a safe environment online for her daughters Talia, 12, and Kezia, nine. But that was hard to do without always looking over their shoulders, says Leung, a participant at the conference. Limiting their internet use to Google Junior was too simplistic, even for homework and research.

One of her challenges is ensuring Talia doesn't imitate her friends when she sees them spending time on their phones texting and updating their Facebook status instead of socialising even when they are with family at home.

The rules of engagement online vary from family to family. Given the rate at which technology and online trends arrive, even experts struggle to define netiquette and rules for online behaviour.

For example, some educators observe an emerging problem with schoolchildren gaining access to, a site that gives users the opportunity to present and answer controversial questions anonymously. A quick skim through the site brings up unmoderated, sexualised and abusive content.

Dangers online are not limited to adult predators. Often dramas our children face are to do with their behaviour online and interactions with peers.

Many parents have an outdated concept of the dangers of technology or are unprepared to enforce appropriate safeguards for children's technology use, says Praise Ma, a teacher at Hong Kong International School and an Apple-distinguished educator.

"Some parents are rightfully worried that their children spend far too much time on the computer and tend to look at the technology as the problem," Ma says.

But fixating on the dangers and shielding youngsters from technological advances does not help them prepare for the life challenges of the future.

Happily, more families are waking up to the changing needs of raising digital natives. Graeme Deuchars, director of education consultancy and organiser 21st Century Learning HK, has had positive responses to its workshops and public lectures on how to better parent their children. Families learned how to set boundaries for the use of the home computer and engage with children's online activity.

Even so, specialists such as Deuchars and Ma concede well-intentioned but busy professionals are usually unable to monitor their children's usage while at work and leave the task to domestic helpers.

Setting timers for internet access and control programs are useful but these are not foolproof. Determined children will invariably find ways to circumvent censorship and so these applications cannot be relied upon as a substitute for parental supervision.

Educators agree that instead of trying to police children's behaviour, the much longer-term solution is to build character.

The universal values of care, honesty, fairness, responsibility and respect apply for the communities we participate in online as much as they do in real life. Such character education must begin from the early years so children are exposed to a sustained process of learning and the practice of ethics, responsibility and care growing up.

According to Common Sense Media, a US non-profit dedicated to improving children's lives, digital citizenship starts at home with adults showing the good behaviour we want to see in our children, talking to them about the values we hold, and explaining how we make decisions.

Young children also learn when they are given safe boundaries in which they can make small mistakes that parents can walk and talk through with them. And, above all else, establish and maintain good and open communication channels with children.

Only when the adults in their lives are addressing positive digital lifestyle habits will children be able to pick up the values they can apply. These conversations should be consistent at home and in schools and continue into later phases of adolescence.

We must keep up with technology's advancements, but we cannot see into the future and set rules for technology we cannot yet imagine.

So, we owe it to the next generation to impart good principles for living online to give them a safe future.