As the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continues to keep families at home, parents and children get to spend more time with each other. This creates both challenges and opportunities and many have to do with how to manage children’s screen time.
TV host and author Daphne Oseña-Paez has been more hands-on with her three daughters since the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was implemented. Her children were busy with their studies online until summer break began. Now, they stay productive by working on creative projects, doing household chores, keeping in touch with friends through video chats, and even exercising together as a family.
But as the lockdown lengthened, Oseña-Paez has observed that these times can be trying for children as well. Her daughters, who are 10, 13 and 17 years old, miss being with their friends and worry about their youth passing them by.
“While the gravity of the global pandemic is scary, I try to reassure them that there are still a lot of things to look forward to while the world is in transition,” says Oseña-Paez who is an ambassador of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Aside from making sure her daughters stay productive, Oseña-Paez also guides her children in terms of their screen time and digital habits. “I don’t let them out alone in the streets of the city, so they can’t be alone online too,” she points out.
Oseña-Paez is torn between two tendencies. Screen time has always been limited for her kids, but during the ECQ, she has grown more lenient with it. But she also wants to keep monitor closely their online time.
“It is a slippery slope that, if not managed by parents early on, will make it harder for them to put limits later. It is tempting to just let them stay glued on screen all day just so we can have peace and quiet, but that can lead to so much danger and it isn’t exactly healthy. I can only practice what I preach, so I limit my own screen time too,” she explains.
Understanding Internet risks
It turns out that Oseña-Paez’s caution about screen time is well founded, according to UNICEF. The UN agency warns that during this pandemic, children are at an increased risk of online violence, such as maltreatment, gender-based violence, and sexual exploitation.
“While online communities have become central to maintain many children’s learning, support and play, it is also increasing their exposure to cyberbullying, risky online behavior and sexual exploitation,” UNICEF says in a statement.
This risk is likely to stay even after COVID-19, as social distancing will continue to part of the ‘new normal’, forcing both children and adults to spend more time on the internet to connect, engage, work, play, study, and be entertained.
More screen time boosts the risks for children of exposure to inappropriate or harmful online content from pornography, violence, and cyberbullying as well as online offenders.
Increased online interaction with peers, likewise, can drive teens into romantic relationships that open them to the risk of exploitation. Since the present situation pushes peers to interact online, there is a heightened risk of exchanging intimate and non-consensual images, which can lead to scandals.
In addition, children and young people lack access to people who can help them like teachers and school guidance counselors. This underscores the need for children to be better protected against offenders, abusers, and exploiters – something that every parent, and guardian should initiate while at home during this crisis.
To help address all these, UNICEF is pushing its SaferKidsPH programme which seeks a multi-sectoral approach in raising public awareness on online child safety and reducing online sexual abuse and exploitation of children (OSAEC).
Fostering age-appropriate guidance on digital habits
Ysrael C. Diloy, senior training advocacy officer of child care organization Stairway Foundation, shares guidelines for keeping children of various ages safe in their online interactions.
While parents and guardians are often tempted to keep toddlers (1-2 years old) and preschoolers (3-5 years old) preoccupied with devices during the community quarantine, these kids should not have more than an hour of daily screen time.
The applications and content for these age groups must be appropriate, such as those which encourage reading, storytelling, or body movements. Parents should also still accompany them when using phones, tablets, or computers, considering that age-inappropriate content might still exist in such platforms.
While children develop more technology-based skills as they grow older, they should not neglect other development domains. Adults are advised to consistently place screen time limits. It is also recommended to discuss with them what age-appropriate apps they may install in the devices they use.
For early school children ages 6-10 years old, parents and guardians can introduce basic cyber safety concepts regarding safe or unsafe online experiences, such as in viewing videos or having in-game conversations. Middle school children 11-12 years old can be taught more complex concepts related to unsafe online interactions, content, and behaviors – from protecting personal information, recognizing bullying, and violent or sexual interactions.
While some parents commonly open social media accounts for their kids, these platforms are not designed for children under 13 years old. Those who are introduced to instant messaging (IM) apps should also not have their own accounts yet, but should instead use that of their parents or guardians, while still being monitored as they chat.
Teens usually encounter more challenging situations as their brains are hardwired for exploration and risk-taking behavior, the guidelines stressed. They also begin to have more online autonomy during this period, and their online and offline lives are more likely merged into one.
Therefore, parents and guardians need to advise their teenage children to practice moderation in device usage. Setting mutual agreements on acceptable daily screen time is a good way of doing this. Presenting them with real-life hobbies that they can get into – from arts, to sports, to homemaking – can also help.
It is important for teens to be guided when they make their social media account for the first time. They must be oriented on privacy features and reporting functions of the platform, which should be reviewed on a regular basis. Adults should also consistently reinforce the concept of recognizing unsafe online content, online interactions, and online behaviors, reminding their teenage children to report these things to the social media platform.
As the teen dating scene has drastically changed throughout the years, teenagers are likely to communicate with their partners through online chats. Therefore, parents and guardians should reiterate to their teens the importance of body integrity, the consequences of sharing images of their private body parts to their partners, and the concept of permanence in an online setting.
Aside from constantly providing safety reminders, it is critical for parents or guardians to be unconditionally available – to make teenagers feel that they have someone to turn to in case they need advice or encounter any problems online.
Advocating safe online spaces for children of all ages
As it steps up its efforts to protect children, particularly during this time of COVID-19, digital services provider PLDT, Inc. (PLDT) and its wireless subsidiary Smart Communications, Inc. (Smart) encourage parents to keep online activities safe for their children.
“As parents, we must realize that this pandemic will be a significant and life-changing experience that our children will bring with them as they grow up. We must use this time with them at home, to be more attentive to their needs as they adjust to the new normal and develop more digital habits, especially in terms of learning, gaming, and connecting with peers through technology,” says Chaye Cabal-Revilla, PLDT Senior Vice President & Group Controller and Smart Chief Financial Officer.
As the concurrent Chief Sustainability Officer for PLDT Group, Cabal-Revilla adds, “We are committed to promoting awareness and accountability in upholding children’s rights in terms of their growth and development, to help safeguard them from harmful influences and abuse.”
With children as part of the company’s stakeholder management plan in its latest Sustainability Report, PLDT has sought guidance from UNICEF in crafting child-safeguarding policies that cover various processes and programs for the workplace, marketing activities, product and service offerings, and trade community engagements. “We have begun implementing these policies to ensure that we remain a child-friendly organization.” Cabal-Revilla says.
Donations coursed through UNICEF will help send timely aid amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and ensure the safety of more children around the world – both in real life and online. For more information, visit donate.unicef.ph and www.saferkidsph.org.