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In today’s digital world, the time children spend online and in front of a screen has a strong influence on their emotional and social development. The content children consume can be controlled for a relatively long period of their lives and then influenced to varying degrees, so we, as parents, have a responsibility to do so.

Is it better to ban or to restrict?

Overall, a complete ban is not the answer, but age-appropriate restriction and making children understand the reasons behind this is more effective. The internet and the media are mostly full of content that is not suitable for children, thus it is important not to allow children free access too early. For young children, it is best to minimise screen time.

Nowadays, many platforms, such as YouTube Kids, have an age rating feature and YouTube content producers can prevent child or adolescent users from accessing certain videos. Phone and tablet app stores also indicate the minimum maturity level of applications, making it easier for parents to decide whether a game or content is suitable for their children.

What about 3 to 6 year olds, i.e. preschool children?

Broadly speaking, children do not need to use media before reaching preschool age. Professionals encounter many children with behavioural and attention problems whose behaviour cannot be attributed merely to genetics. Children can become overstimulated through exposure to too many visual stimuli or sound effects. In offline conditions, competing with this abundance of stimuli is difficult; children’s attention is held for shorter periods of time and activities involving fewer stimuli become boring for them. Media consumption at too early an age and excessive media consumption can even lead to school immaturity.

The attention and self-control of preschool children are continuously developing, and they need a wide variety of activities where they can use and develop as many of their senses as possible. They like fanciful games, but may not yet be able to consciously separate fantasy from reality, and neither may they be able to fully understand the connection between cause and effect. It is more difficult for young children to apply what they learn from television or books; they learn best from real-life situations, but they can acquire information and facts from the media and the internet.

At this age, making sure that children are not online and in front of a screen without the knowledge and presence of an adult is of paramount importance, as the media and the internet is full of content that is inappropriate for them. Appropriate content for young children can help them to expand their vocabulary and learn interesting information about the world around them. Preschool children find it easy to memorise songs and nursery rhymes but they do not always understand the words, hence it is important to choose content with simple language free of undesirable phrases.

Small children are excellent imitators, but they mimic not only positive examples but also aggressive behaviour. Moreover, young children can be upset by content that we might not consider disturbing at first glance.

Children in this age group can benefit from content that supports their readiness for school and learning basic scientific information by means of a variety of visual illustrations. Content that is not explicitly educational in its purpose should be friendly and model positive behaviour patterns.

Let’s talk about primary school children aged 7 to 10

Young schoolchildren are already able to use language fluently; they learn to read and write, and reach the stage of independent problem solving. They are able to follow more complex stories and are beginning to understand that things are not always black and white, or only good or bad. This is the age when empathy and understanding other people’s feelings continue to develop, when children are able to hide their emotions, and when friendships and social relationships become important.

At this age, children may already be discovering the digital world. However, there is a good chance that they do not yet understand the effect their behaviour can have on real people. It is important for them to learn that bullying is as big a problem online as it is face-to-face. They have to be made to realise that not everything they see, hear or read on the internet is true. Young schoolchildren do not need to use social media at all, and for them educational content and games are relevant.

Young schoolchildren, like preschoolers, still learn most from positive examples, but now they are also able to learn lessons and come to conclusions from negative examples. However, attention should be paid to ensuring that negative behaviour does not dominate the story, and the consequences and lessons learnt should be discussed with them.

At this age, the best thing that can be done is to support children in continuing to master what they have learnt at school and in exploring their personal interests. It is important to start preparations for responsible online behaviour at this age.

Young adolescents aged 11 to 14 should not be left out

In early adolescence, young people begin to develop abstract thinking and to take account of “what if” scenarios as a way of avoiding the rules. At this age, children tend to rebel to a certain degree and focus increasingly on their peers. Popularity plays an important role for youngsters in this age group, and they can devote a lot of attention to themselves in order to gain recognition from their peers. For this reason, it is essential to teach children not to give up on themselves and their identity; that popularity is not the be all and end all, and to dare to say “no” in situations that are uncomfortable for them.

Among children of this age, the use of social media appears in practice even though registering on the various platforms at this age is not yet officially possible. They may feel immense social pressure from their peers to be as active as possible on social media, having it drummed into them by their peers that the key to popularity lies in posting, while they are unaware of the downsides of such platforms. Children should be taught that the internet does not forget, and they may later regret the contents they upload.

Children should be supported in improving their general knowledge and awareness. Young adolescents easily become engrossed with online quizzes and similar things, and are able to independently find content that interests them, which may be a video, an article or a book.

Young adolescents are already relatively technologically literate, but their skills can often exceed their ability to judge, so it is still best to restrict their access to certain websites.

A few words about teenagers and young adults aged 15 to 17

Teenagers already have a large measure of independence and the ability to make well-founded arguments and to connect different types of information, even drawing on diverse areas of knowledge. They usually have strong opinions on certain moral issues, although their views exceed their experience. At this age, we are no longer really talking about children, but rather teenagers and then young adults.

Exercising parental control is much harder as young people of this age are already regular, skilful users of platforms and applications, even new ones that their parents have never heard of. Ideally, children will have developed and become aware of safe internet and screen use by early adolescence, so that, when they gain independence, they already know what is right and wrong. However, this does not mean that as parents we should allow our children an entirely free hand. Their maturity makes it possible to have deeper conversations with them about online dangers, as they are better able to communicate their experiences than when they were younger.

Also, teenagers have an increased need for privacy on online channels as well. It is the parents’ task to emphasise responsible and respectful online behaviour. It is essential that young people think before they post because nothing is ever really private online and everything leaves a trace.

What is the long-term solution?

In the long term, banning is not the solution as forbidden fruit is always sweeter for children and young people. Later in their adult lives, too, they will benefit the most from having learnt about the internet and its dangers at an early age, in a way that corresponds to their actual level of maturity, and from having become conscious users at a young age. 

16. 11. 2023