We- the colleagues of mid-30's and plus 40s- have continued the weekly tea talk, where multifarious issues ranging from office work to study and family management feature significantly. Among them, the most unavoidable are the issues surrounding our children. During such talk, even the male folks, including myself, fuss more than mothers do about children at home. As we often claim it at present, digital screening of children has been a headache to us. Differing views emanate: children are detached from parents with excessive use of mobile phone; children's digital screening must be monitored carefully; there's no option either to the parents to avoid children's nagging so smart phone is the best tool; children take help from computer/internet to solve problems, do homework; they are smarter than us because of modern media; but, how much time is appropriate for them to watch the digital screen etc. As the talk continues, the glass of scalded milk/coffee is emptied and its turn for black team but the conclusion is elusive. Amazingly, we end with the note (mostly negative): we need to control/curtail our children's digital time. The problem of parenting in digital age differs drastically from the parenting by our guardians. Those were the days we played in mud and dust; we had large open space to run and play; we sometime listened to radio for songs (a great opportunity but to very few). Unlike present digital children, we were analogue children!
Time for ‘sharenting’ As my colleagues continue talks, a school meeting that I attended to learn about children served a wakeup call. When most the parents attending parents-teachers’ meeting requested the teachers to help reduce children’s time on digital screening, one of the teachers sought more responsibility from parents themselves, saying: “Why don’t you provide time to your children? Can’t you watch a children’s movie together with your child at home? Can’t you manage time to take children together for hiking? Let’s try to be friends to children in addition to being parents.” These questions are of tremendous value as we, parents are giving less time at a time when we’re managing with a single child, big gap in child spacing, little participation in children’s learning and entertainment, no outer space for children’s play etc. After this, I remembered a talk programme on parenting in digital age where a concept of ‘sharenting’ was floated. The experts in the programme had stressed sharenting as the shared use of digital space by children and parents: Children can be complimented by the parents to keep them watching, and entertaining together. As digital device are increasingly used for learning and entertainment, the parents can teach children on it, watch movie and cartoon together. It is the solution to loneliness. As the sharenting is participatory and inclusive method of parenting, it helps foster creativity and innovation, making children competitive in digital skills. Although various factors as age, region, skills matter on it, I think the concept of sharenting can be implemented to reduce children’s untiring and wild engagement on internet. The togetherness may not only foster child-parent relation but also help parents reduce stress and unnecessary fuss on digital natives- children.
Children’s right While talking about parenting, and children’s education, health, upbringing and entertainment, it is pertinent to talk about the national legislation on children’s rights. The constitution of any country is the supreme law of the land. The Constitution of Nepal- 2015 has made comprehensive provisions on children's right. Under the fundamental rights, Article 39 (b) mentions: "Every child shall have the right to education, health, maintenance, proper care, sports, entertainment and overall personality development from the families and the State." Now, the digital space or let's call now the internet platform has been evolved as the place of education and entertainment. If we are to respect children's rights as education, entertainment and personality development, among others, there is no denying that children's access to internet cannot be obstructed. Internet is the vast trove of information and sources of knowledge on multiple issues that are required for enhancing knowledge and build skills that are required for the overall growth of children. Are the children’s rights on and out of internet different? Can all rights of children be protected on digital space or internet? Yes, it may be confusing to many. But the experts say the offline and online rights are same and should be treated equally. Child protection specialist, Jasmina Byrne, who led UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti’s work on children’s rights in the digital age and research on family and parenting support, observed in a 2016 report: “It is important to remember that child rights are universal and equally applicable everywhere in the world, irrespective of the age or gender of the child, whether they go to school or not, are rich or poor. And that should be the same when it comes to the internet. Why should we think that rights, when applied to the internet, are any different?” Here, the mention, ‘children’s rights are universal and equally applicable everywhere,’ count importance. Similarly, the 'Global Kids Online: Comparative Report' prepared by various organizations including UNICEF, and Media and Communications Department of the London School of Economics and Political Science, which was released in November 2019, mentions the children's online activities that the more access to and experience of the online environment that children have, the more likely they are to engage in new and diverse activities. Children in less affluent countries are much less likely to watch videos and play games online than children in more affluent countries. Children who receive less restrictive mediation from their parents are more likely to do diverse activities online – not only entertainment activities, but also informational and creative activities. The report further said: Children’s engagement in ‘entertainment’ activities online is associated with positive digital skills development. When parents restrict children’s internet use, this has a negative effect on children’s information seeking and privacy skills, it showed. These points, made after rigorous study and research stress that children’s online behavior can help development digital skills. Even the less restrictive mediation from parent is showed. To this, I mull: Are we not more restrictive on it? Although context matters much, the study finding must be taken into account.
No or little research As I googled to know whether there was any empirical data and study report on children's right in digital age referring to Nepal, I could not find anything relevant. So, I had no option but to resort to the study reports in larger frame. To this state, I’m worried why the academic and social institutions have not done any research to such pertinent issue. For lack of research, that too, an empirical research, we are swayed by the hasty generalization, and make the grand narrative that mobile phones and internet are poison to children, they spoil their creativity. Now, Nepal has plenty of journalism and mass communications colleges under different universities; dozens of NGOs are working on children's rights; parliaments are in place at federal and provincial levels; and even the guardians' associations have existed for long. Interestingly, even the hospitals have the appendage of 'research center' in their names. Research is, of course, a tedious job, consuming time and expertise. It needs group work or assistance and engagement from multiple sectors. Research is not writing an opinion article, but a comprehensive task of setting goals to reach conclusion, fitting finding and visiting fields (sometime). Is it because of such reason research on it not done in Nepal? The question dogs me. There may be a lot of other reasons too. For lack of study, there is no data (or if yes, not easily accessible) available on Nepali children’s use of digital device: how many hour they glue to digital device; what content they watch; whether the parents have digital skills to monitor children etc. More importantly, Nepal recently saw huge debate and discussion on information technology (IT) Bill though it was brought nearly a year back. Most of the lobbyists argued mostly on the provisions, reasoning its adverse effect on freedom of expression, privacy and innovation. But, no one was speaking about the children's rights in digital age. Does IT Bill incorporate the provisions that favour children's rights in internet age? Needless to say, our children are digital natives. How safe and secure the digital natives are? It is worrisome that these issues were missed in the national debate.
Stakeholder engagement We have seen piecemeal advocacy in terms of the issues around internet and technology, partly because of taking one thing superior to another and partly because of ignorance. Here, we must internalize that internet, though a technological innovation, its fair function is determined my various factors eg technology, law and policy, human rights, economy, social norms, intermediaries as internet service providers (ISP). Only law does not govern the internet, because it evolved with much care from multiple sides. The silence of advocacy of children’s right on internet during the furor over IT Bill can be taken as an example of piecemeal advocacy. Moreover, even the technologists and ISP were relatively mute. Anything surrounding internet needs multi-stakeholders’ approach. In Nepal’s case as well, voices from single side does not mature the issues on internet. It is same in case of children’s rights on digital age. Now, the stakeholders in this issue are parents and their associations, school, university and research institutions, government bodies, human rights institutions, media. They can play disparate role from their sides for the protection and promotion of children’s right in digital age. The academia can make research, while media disseminate news on. The government can hold discussions and debates to know various aspects while parents and school can actively participate in the discussion and research, providing inputs. They can also mobilize children to share their views on digital use. Investment on children is essential to create healthy human resource needed for country’s development. As we are making national ambition of ‘prosperous Nepal-happy Nepali’, why can’t we dwell on such issues? Investment on children does not mean mere enrollment of children to school but a holistic study for their secure future, where there lies nation’s future. Equally important is where our periodic plans talked on children’s rights on digital sphere. I would like to conclude it with positive note with a reference again. An M Sc student of Media and Communication at London School of Economic and Political Sciences, Alexandra Chernyavskaya writes, ‘What research repeatedly shows us is that the more children use the internet the more digital skills they gain and the higher they climb the so-called ladder of opportunities to gain all the relevant benefits of being online.’ Let’s explore positive sides of internet for children’s right. Let’s work together to reap the benefits of open school/university to our children.
(Ghimire, a working journalist, is internet governance enthusiast)