We live in a digital age, and it is almost impossible to avoid using the Internet or the various technologies that exist around us. Technological progress has become integral in our daily lives, not only at work, but also in our personal lives, in communities and in our roles as parents.
It is no longer uncommon to find people everywhere, of all ages, using their mobile devices in restaurants, on trains, in the parks, even at hospitals and on airplanes. It is the new normal.
An American research centre reported that more than 5 billion people worldwide are mobile device users and half of them use smartphones. A 2018 survey by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission also found that Malaysia has reached a 78% smartphone penetration rate.
With the rapid spread of digital technology, various aspects of parenting have become implicated as well. New terms have begun to appear to describe how technology has left its mark on modern parenting – sharenting, digital babysitters, screen time and parennials to name a few.
Many have addressed the issue of parental control over kids’ Internet and gadget usage. But, what about the parents themselves? How can we use digital technology as a resource to become better parents?
In praise of the Internet
Digital technology has afforded us huge conveniences in our lives. Take the impact of the Internet and smartphones. We can access everything we need with a tap of our fingers, anytime and anywhere. We order food, pay bills, watch movies, call for taxis and more, all from the comfort of our homes.
Early childhood educator Pn Anisa Ahmad feels that technological advancements are definitely an advantage to parents, especially in this modern age when life moves fast and quick answers are required.
“One can just type your questions and get instant answers from the Internet. Easy access to information is useful for modern parents as they no longer have to depend on the help and guidance of their extended family, or even ‘the whole village’, as the generation before them did,” said the president of Association of Registered Childcare Providers Malaysia.
Numerous websites and blogs provide reviews of products or facilities for children, making it easier for parents to compare and choose what is best for their kids. Online forums, Facebook and Whatsapp groups also enable parents to share their experiences, provide support for each other and exchange tips and recommendations on a more personal level.
When it comes to connectivity, technology has been advantageous. “My family’s WhatsApp group is essential as we are able to be updated on everyone’s whereabouts, or if there’s any urgent matter to deal with, say an emergency. It’s easier to keep in touch with everybody all at the same time,” said the mother of five.
The dark side
The widespread use of digital technology also, however, has raised new challenges and legitimate concerns. Prof Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon remarked, “The Internet facilitates dissemination of knowledge and information, but this also means it is easier for misinformation to spread.”
People may confuse fake news with real news, believe pseudoscientific claims and follow harmful trends they read online. Unverified messages are also rampant on social media. Plus, the ceaseless flow of information makes it harder to filter out the bad from the good.
“There are many factors that contribute to this problem. For example, it’s impossible to regulate every corner of the Internet due to its enormity. The lack of authority on the Internet enables everyone, no matter who or how credible he or she is, to propagate their message to the world. This is good for freedom of speech, but not so much in safeguarding the veracity of knowledge,” explained the clinical psychologist.
The Internet also exposes the family unit to new threats, such as scam and fraud emails, cyberbullying, online predators, internet addiction and other unforeseen harms.
Pn Anisa related her experience: “My youngest daughter was playing with my phone and chatting with what we thought was a chatbot. The conversation was friendly and innocent, but after it found out my daughter is only a child, it started asking weird questions. Luckily I was with her at the time and promptly told her to stop the conversation.”
Using the Internet wisely
More parents, especially millennials, are turning to Dr Google and the “virtual village” for advice, support and parenting tips. They are able to gain wider knowledge about their child’s health and development, but the large amount of information can be overwhelming and lead to conflicting advice. Unreliable resources are also pervasive in the virtual world.
So, how can we use the Internet more wisely and ethically as parents and individuals? “The obvious recommendation is to refer to trustworthy and reliable sources,” advised Prof Ng. “Seek the answer to your health-related questions from websites of governmental, medical and expert organisations, children’s hospitals, and academic institutions. These sites usually provide credible information. If they don’t have the information you need, then only seek out sites that have evidence-based resources, rather than public testimonials or a long list of doubtful honours or credentials.”
For other types of sources – online news, magazines, blogs, forums, social media – it is good to be sceptical and verify information before heeding the advice and sharing it with others. Here are some tips as shared by Prof Ng:
- Cross-checking. Find out if similar information is shared by other legitimate sources. If yes, the information is good. Otherwise, it is probably false.
- Check for credentials. The author should have a background in related fields and qualifications from legitimate institutions. If it’s a news or magazine article, make sure there is input from experts, whose backgrounds and credentials are easily obtainable, transparent and legitimate.
- Confirm details and references. If possible, confirm any statistics, published studies, people’s names, organisations and other details mentioned in the writing by searching for the first source.
- Look at the URL. Some websites use addresses similar to reputable media to trick readers into trusting their content. Confirm the real web address by looking at the top results from a search engine.
- Verify with a fact checker. The information you received sounds suspicious? Check it with fact checkers, such as Snopes, Google’s Fact Check Explorer or our local my; or simply key in the word “fraud” or “fake” next to the information you are searching for.
- Conduct reverse image search. If any image is used, it can be verified by doing a reverse search via TinEye or Google Images.
Nevertheless, Consultant Paediatrician Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail advised: “Parents should keep in mind that no website can replace seeing a real healthcare professional, especially when it involves your child’s health. If your child seems ill, don’t post her symptoms on social media to ask for your friends’ or family’s opinions. They may be well-meaning, but they are not healthcare experts themselves. Seek immediate medical care. It’s also good to verify any information you learn online with your doctor.”
The chairman of the Positive Parenting Programme also reminded parents to be wary of sharenting. “Sharenting is when parents overshare the details of their child’s life on social media or blogs. If you want to share funny videos or cute photos of your toddler with other family members, use private channels, like emails or personal online storage.”
He also shared other insights on seeking information online.
- Question your assumptions. Confirmation bias leads us to seek information that approves what we already believe in. Looking for opposing information helps to balance our view and judge more fairly.
- Refer to scientific consensus. If you learn something that sounds too controversial or very different from the established science, it is probably not accurate. One study is not enough as evidence.
- Natural is not always better. There is a prevalent notion in the wellness industry that “nature is better”. But nature also contains harmful substances and is not always a safer choice.
- Fancy does not mean effective. Websites with fancy-sounding “too-good-to-be-true” methods and a string of testimonials and acknowledgements are likely to be targeting desperate parents who are seeking help for their children’s health issues.
Meanwhile, Pn Anisa advised parents to stay updated with the latest news and tech. “This is important to avoid getting tricked, to learn about better channels of learning, to be aware of new threats and to be able to guide your kids. Find out about good and suitable apps that can be a learning tool for your kids, like Didi & Friends, Scholastic, PBS Kids, etc. YouTube is a good resource, but it takes only a few clicks to move from a safe place to disturbing content – so monitor your kids at all times.”
She added, “Remember that you are the role model for your kids. Show good Internet and gadget usage and practise what you preach. Be with them when they’re learning to use these devices and answer any questions that may arise. Watch shows and play video games together, and engage with your children online. Note any unusual behaviour or postings online. Be a part of their online environment, but know your limit and avoid being too intrusive.”
Related: Kids and Cyber-Security
Pn Anisa also reminded parents that no screen time should be allowed for children below two years old and the limit for children aged two to six is two hours, because at these ages, social interaction and play is important for their emotional and physical development.
List of credible sources
There are plenty of trustworthy online resources for parents and the general public. Here are some examples:
- Ministry of Health (MOH)
- Lembaga Penduduk & Pembangunan Keluarga Negara (LPPKN)
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
- Positive Parenting Malaysia
- Nutrition Month Malaysia
- Healthy Children by American Association of Paediatrics