The invention of the internet by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 ushered an era of social media that revolutionised communications and information gathering in the world. With a click of a button or a touch of a screen one can roam around the world and connect with people, all in the palm of their hands. However, with these extraordinary opportunities come dangerous risks; technology may be neutral, but its usage could be lethal. It is telling then that almost 30 years after inventing the internet, Berners-Lee has unveiled a plan to tackle data abuse and fake news whilst calling for tighter regulations of "unethical" political adverts.
The recent stories on the effects of fake news and the trivialisation of political discourse, especially after the 2016 EU Referendum in the UK and US Presidential election, have concerned many. Politics has, in recent decades, turned more and more into a show business; this is posing a threat to the viability of democratic government. Many now think that we live in a world of post-truth politics where truth and lies are often blurred. Fake news is now so rampant that the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee is investigating concerns about its impact on future of democracy and social stability.
The internet has indeed opened the floodgate of information. With state-of-the-art technologies children can instantly go online to learn and research any subject they like, expand their knowledge, connect with geographically distant people or engage in the pursuit of entertainment. Through web-based smartphones they can engage in civic or humanitarian activities or waste their life in trivial pursuits. For the average child with this level of access that his or her parents could only dream about at their age, the possibilities are endless.
It is this very fact that makes the internet a potentially dangerous tool. With the ability to gain access on any number of devices - mobiles, watches and tablets - young and impressionable children can be in touch with a multitude of harmful sites and engage in activities such as watching pornography, potentially be the victims of cyber bullying or fall prey to grooming for sex and radicalisation.
Adolescents are naturally unsettled and impressionable because of hormonal changes in their body and a lack of exposure to the complexities of life. Unless helped with empathy by loving parents and adults around them they may fall into the trap of the widespread evils of internet or age-sensitive materials.
We live in an age of confusion, anxiety and anger. There are plenty of predators with evil intent, and who have no moral compunction, to prey on vulnerable teenagers, often through internet-based social media. Young people lacking in self-esteem or disenchanted for social or political reasons can be manipulated by their slick online propaganda.
Web-based social media has flourished astronomically in recent decades and its addictive reach is gripping. It is claimed that the average weekly screen time for an American adult is 74 hours! Things are not dissimilar in the UK where adults spend an average of eight hours and 41 minutes a day on media devices, mostly web-based; children aged 5 to 16 spend an average of 6.5 hours a day in front of TV screens, consoles, smartphones, computers and tablets. According to a Deloitte survey in 2016 "almost half of 18-24 year olds check their phone in the middle of the night".
The way smartphone and web-based technology is being used is in fact eating away youngsters' free time to think, reflect and plan. They are more used to exchanging texts and images through smartphones than to talk. This, in effect, is creating disconnect with people around them.
Smartphone use has become so addictive that it is affecting car drivers and pedestrians in busy public places. The addiction has also reached religious centres; some in the congregation frequently turn their attention to the screens rather than searching for spiritual solace. People do not have time to converse with others next to them. This "death of conversation" is affecting young people more and negatively impacting on their communication skills.
It is for these reasons that parents, carers and teachers want children to use the internet with moderation. What they watch and with whom they communicate have recently become part of a safeguarding issue.
But how can parents and teachers wisely handle children's online activities before addiction takes over their young mind?
First of all parents, with whatever backgrounds, must have basic knowledge of the nature of web-based social media with its many benefits and potential harms. Only then they can plan how to handle their children's online activities with empathy and better discipline. The parental task is to sensitively, not intrusively, mentor and coach children on how to use the internet productively. Parents can set sensible boundaries for them if their relationship is healthy and the family environment is open; children would then feel confident in discussing their feelings and challenges they may face at school and in the street.
For this, parents need to invest quality time with their children, sit with them one-to-one or in a family setting and find common grounds on using internet. One simple tip at home could be to keep laptops or computers in an open area so that children, before they reach the age of responsibility, use it while family members are around. Parents may also need to put sensible boundaries or even block certain undesirable websites or apps; however, this has to be done with much thought and sensitivity.
In these days of "me first" culture it is vital children are raised with the ethos of introspection and spiritual transcendence. When human beings are driven by an inner conscience it is easy for them to stay away from inappropriate actions on their own volition.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, parenting consultant and author. The views expressed in this article are the author's own.Suggest a correction