Ok computer: raising tech-savvy children
At what age should a child be allowed online? Here Tanya Sweeney speaks to two families who encourage tech tools from a young age
While most adults are just getting to grips with podcasts, one 7-year-old girl is about to launch her own. Cadhla McAnally from Portmarnock has the distinction of having her own Dublin Fringe Theatre podcast, an initiative of the Young Radials: Fringe for Kids programme.
Created alongside her actor father Aonghus Og McAnally, the podcast, entitled Cobras' Quest, is described as an "epic audio adventure for under 12s". Suffice to say that even with dad at the mixing desk, Cadhla is more technologically savvy than many.
"She's just of that generation where they grew up in a world where everyone has an iPhone," explains Aonghus Og. "She doesn't have a phone or iPad, but she can handle herself with all that stuff. My Mum was babysitting and Cadhla was able to access videos of Elmo for her baby sister on YouTube through the PlayStation."
With great savvy comes great responsibility. "She knows we will be there supervising," says Aonghus Og. "She's very honest and responsible and occasionally tries to push her luck, but if anything pops up online that she knows she shouldn't watch, she will tell us."
Significantly, Aonghus Og uses technology to admirable effect with Cadhla, helping her to primarily engender creativity and imagination.
"We have a Lego app on the tablet and she likes to make stop-motion animation films," he explains. "They end up online, but the good thing is that you can just email the link to people and no one finds the link, which is particularly good if other children are involved."
There isn't too much in the way of bargaining for screen time as Cadhla is a real bookworm.
"We've only had to tell her she's had enough screen time once or twice," says her dad. "It really helps if you're not glued to the phone yourself as a parent. It's not a massively strict house but I like the act of sitting down to a meal."
Over in Rathgar, meanwhile, technology is central to the lives of Rhona Gouldson and her husband, Archie Chen. The pair run the Piano Academy of Ireland and use technology to enhance band practice, sight-reading, ear training and reading sheet music. Their children Solomon (10) and Sheba (8) both got tablets last Christmas.
"They have parental settings for kids," explains Archie. "It's not foolproof, but it does the job, once you keep an eye on them."
Archie himself grew up in Washington surrounded by computers, and is a big believer in raising his children to be similarly tech-savvy. "The kids are quite advanced and Solomon has expressed an interest [in coding]," reveals Archie. The youngsters earn their non-educational screen time once they do chores. "They know they have their bits to do around the house, and their reading and piano practice," reveals Rhona. "We know the screens are addictive and that if we were to leave them in front of the screen, they wouldn't get off them. We give them 30-minute increments.
"Solomon has a little more of an addictive personality and we have discussed whether we should ban screen time altogether, but my view is that if you deprive them, there will be resentment.
"All their friends have tablets and this is what they talk about at school. We have very strict rules around it: they're not allowed to install their own apps and we keep monitoring the screens, either ourselves or the childminder."
"I think kids need to have experiences of the online world and the real world, but I try to tell them you can't live inside the computer," adds Archie. Rhona and Archie created Facebook pages for their children, mainly to build memories of events and to store photos. They will be unlocked for them in their mid-teens.
"Sheba asks to see her baby pictures and I'll get up Facebook and show her, but I don't think she understands the significance of Facebook too much. She is very sensible with her technology: she has a little app for photos and make-up, but I think it's very innocent and fun. That's how it is for now: who knows what challenges lie ahead."
There's no doubt that introducing children to technology at an early age has its benefits. In a world in which digital skills are a prerequisite for most jobs, keeping tabs on technological developments probably isn't just smart, but necessary. And many Irish parents are keen for their children to stay ahead of the curve. According to an EU Kids Online survey done in 2014, over 50pc of six- to eight-year-olds have access to the internet. The research states that parents supervise this activity around 20pc of the time. And left unsupervised, no one can deny the risks of exposing youngsters to screen time.
According to research led by DIT researcher Brian O'Neill, Irish kids are handling the internet well. The study examined 11- to 16-year-olds and asked the young people if they experienced any problems associated with overuse of the internet such as not sleeping or eating, not finishing school work or a lack of socialising. Across Europe, the research found that just 1pc of children are at risk due to unhealthy levels of excessive internet use.
Irish children reported being online at least once a day for an average of 61 minutes. Some 41pc of these responded positively to at least one of the items related to excessive internet use in the survey.
Alex Cooney, CEO of Cyber Safe Ireland, observes that most of the children she talks to through the organisation have a smartphone or tablet, or at least good access to one.
"There is fierce pressure from kids to get technology," she says. "I heard from one school principal that a child in First Class had been allowed to play Grand Theft Auto online. It's an extreme example, but we've noticed that when kids get their Communion money, the big thing now is to get a tablet.
"Parents use technology for lots of different reasons with kids: putting on Peppa Pig is a great distraction when you're trying to get dinner on. I've done it myself and know a lot of parents who have. But as children get more developed, and they start to understand how Google and YouTube work, the ability to explore and to find the wrong thing is greater."
Cooney advises that parents adopt a more mindful approach to allowing their children access to screens.
"Devices are handed over without too much thinking behind it," she says. "Ensure there are ground rules. Say 'this is the deal - you get a half an hour each day, I get to check your friends lists when I want and we look at the screens together'."
The Government is set to harmonise its laws with a European directive on data protection and are likely to set the digital 'age of consent' at 13 (where parental consent will be required up to the age of 13).
"One form of cyber bullying is exclusion," says Cooney. "If you have eight girls in a WhatsApp group and the ninth friend isn't in there, it's another subtle type of bullying. No parent wants their child to go through that."
Irish kids online: the facts
- Snapchat and Instagram were the most popular instant-messaging and social-media apps along with YouTube.
- 72pc of Irish children use the internet daily in their homes and this uptake increases with age - a recent national survey reported rates of domestic access increasing from 53pc with nine to 10 year olds to 92pc of young adolescents.
- 19pc of the children surveyed spent in excess of four hours online a day.
- 28pc of 2,321 children surveyed were in online contact with a stranger either occasionally or every day.
- 64pc of teachers surveyed reported they do not feel sufficiently resourced to effectively deliver educational messages on internet safety, notwithstanding the fact that 84pc of teachers address internet safety in the curriculum.
- In 82pc of sessions that CyberSafe Ireland did with children, at least one child in the class was playing games with a PEGI rating of 18.
Source: CyberSafe Ireland Annual Report 2016