The Networked Child

Children of today are growing up in a digital environment that is exciting yet can also be harmful. I refer to the pervasive nature of social media, the internet, and everything that comes with it in the sense that the vast majority of British children in 2018, are hard-wired into a culture that parents and schools have seemingly little or no control over, and to a lesser or greater extent, a culture where the child of 2018 has become the ‘Networked Child’.

I must confess to being part of this ‘networked’ generation as an adult. From a work, social and educational point of view, there are many advantages of harnessing technology as a positive and progressive tool. I do not have any virtual reality goggles yet and I am resisting the smartwatch by currently favouring a single usage device called a watch (with full analogue technology), but then again I am part of the over 40’s generation!

However, sometimes it feels like the ability to send emails round the clock, check phone messages and respond to texts instantly gets in the way of enjoying life, rather than enhancing it.

At Hallfield, like many schools, we have organised information evenings for parents about keeping children safe online. Within the school context, robust internet filtering systems and supervised use of IT help to keep our children safe online. However, the omnipresence of smartphones and 4G networks, which many children under the age of 11 now possess as a rite of passage and social currency with peers, means that any home-filtering services and parental controls are easily by-passed.

Across the country, schools are working hard to keep children safe online. PHSE and ICT lessons deal with both the social protocols and technical skills to help children protect themselves from revealing too much personal information online.

Children, like their parents, love to talk! Not all conversations are constructive though, and the ease of hiding behind ‘apps’ for secure and anonymous conversation means that the social barriers and norms of what is said are increasingly being pushed and abused by people who may prove to be dangerous.

Bullying – an issue that was once confined to the playground and could be left at school is no longer reliant on a physical presence. I have no doubt that all schools have dealt with incidences of cyberbullying, which is a very difficult issue to deal with. It requires the understanding and cooperation of parents and guardians to help stamp this out.

Childline reported that within the last year, Snapchat and Instagram were the most mentioned apps by children who required counselling for bullying. Staggeringly, 23% of all eight to11-year-olds have a social media account, which is alarming as the minimum age to sign up for most social media platforms is 13 years.

Another major concern for the ‘Networked Child’ is the effect this new digital age has on their attention span and energy levels. The nature of online gaming and constant electronic stimulation is addictive, especially for youngsters. A recent study found that the availability of such devices in children’s bedrooms is just one cause of sleep deprivation.

The international comparison, carried out by Boston College, found the United States to have the highest number of sleep-deprived students, with 73% of nine and ten-year-olds and 80% of 13 and 14-year-olds identified by their teachers as being adversely affected. Other countries with the most sleep-deprived youngsters were New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Australia, England, Ireland and France.

The research showed that children who had more sleep performed better at school and achieved higher results in Maths, English and Science tests. The researchers found that, in particular, the light emitted from screens close to the face (as with mobile phones) was found to have a particularly negative effect on sleep patterns.

A recent newspaper article (Sunday Times 14/10/18) explained that boarders at Brighton College have been made to swap their smartphones for alarm clocks at 9 pm each evening to give them down-time and the chance to stay offline. I must confess that I also adopted this approach some time ago, and even invested in a piece of old technology known as the bedside clock! It tells the time very well and a buzzer goes off when it is time to wake up. It is not Blu-tooth, wi-fi enabled or any such thing. My mobile phone no longer lives on my bedside table for the last-minute checking of an email before I go to sleep, and I try hard to resist looking at emails until I have had my first cup of tea in the morning.

So, what can we, as parents, do to ensure our children do get enough sleep?

I would advise insisting your child leaves their mobile phone downstairs before going to bed. Ideally, children would not have TVs or computers in their bedrooms, but this is increasingly rare, especially as children get older.

Another helpful idea is to set time limits for playing electronic games. Computer games can be highly addictive; ask any parent what happens when they try to get their 14-year-old son to switch off the X-box! It has also been found that getting children to switch off and have some ‘cool down’ time before going to sleep is also very helpful. How about suggesting some wonderful old technology like reading a book instead?

There is a great deal of useful advice and support for parents on many forums. The NSPCC has some good guidance on helping families become ‘share aware’ and agreeing on rules for online activity. Equally, O2 gurus and Net Aware are sources of useful advice about understanding how to monitor and set up filters on your child’s mobile device.

It is not all bad, however, the research concludes with some good news:  Learning loss can be reversed when good sleep patterns are restored, and children are back to getting between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.

Personally, I think we need to become more self-aware of our addiction to being connected to the world, and as adults, we should model ‘down-time’ for our children to ensure that they live in the real world as well as the virtual world.

Keith Morrow

Head Master

Keeping Children Safe Online Presentation.