Why the Internet has become a scary place for parents

Most people bringing up young children in a tech-smitten world echo similar nervousness

By Saba Karim Khan

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Published: Fri 16 Sep 2022, 5:51 PM

Last updated: Fri 16 Sep 2022, 6:28 PM

I recently got asked in the either-or section of an interview, “Would you rather give up YouTube or Google, if you were forced to give up one?” The answer wasn’t instantly obvious to me but my dilemma in having to choose made one thing clear: whilst most things can be easily discarded, the Internet is undeniably, an indispensable entity in our lives.

With technology comes a tonne of conveniences and opportunities and the past couple of years — working from home, online schooling — have illustrated this in ways we perhaps couldn’t have imagined earlier. There are other benefits too; in countries where women’s movement in public spaces remains strictly controlled, the Internet is a portal, allowing them to tap into movements, cultures and territories, otherwise beyond reach. Political mobilisation, as we are witnessing across the world, has been spurred by the support galvanised online. It is becoming more and more difficult to get away with things, in a world where virality seems to be the currency.But the payoff comes at a cost, a price which we are yet to fully determine.

As a mother of two small girls, fewer elements of parenting confuse and worry me more than our children’s relationship to technology. On one level, my fears are literal — the number of hours our children spend on devices, types of online content available, and the addictive dangers of such consumption. On the other, my rising alarm is also abstract — the loss of social engagement and activity, the deferred impact of inappropriate exposure, and the set of values, desires and expectations that this is likely to produce — entirely mismatched with how one imagines raising children.

Over the last few years, I have discovered, first-hand, the sort of unsuitable material floating online, freely available to children as young as 3-, 4- and 5-year-old. What also seems to be occurring is a diminishing interest among children, to watch cartoons and fictional characters versus the proliferation of real-life videos on the Internet. From TikTok celebrating the “unboxing” of overpriced toys, to unrestricted use of foul language, performances of dangerous stunts, age-inappropriate role-play conversation and politically incorrect humour, it’s all there in this versatile digital jukebox — and children seem drawn to it, like moths to a flame. I’m not even going to venture into the threats posed to slightly older children — cyber-bullying, stalking, sharing private information, mental health hazards; the risks only seem to expand with age.

When I speak to other parents, I start to believe that my fears are not imagined, neither are they unique to me. Most people bringing up young children in a tech-smitten world echo similar nervousness. The frustration is exacerbated by realising that despite deep awareness of the potential harm, it is far from simple to constantly surveil and limit the time our children spend online. Like most others, I’ve thought about the problem long and hard, lost sleep over it, introduced knee-jerk interventions, but quickly lost steam. Over the last few months, however, the dangers of uncontrolled Internet exposure, have started nagging at me, with real and repeated ferocity — this sense of enough is enough. It has also made me realise that the anxiety and panic must morph into a more sustained, practical will, if I want to tackle this problem with any degree of effectiveness; an inclination to change something, even if it means starting small, but a change that is sustainable and not just aspirational. We are not aiming to introduce a zero-Internet policy in our home, but through trial and error, three interventions for better balanced tech usage are proving valuable and doable at the same time:

• Controlling the actual amount of time children spend online: This is quite a literal exercise and one that requires staying the course. Of course, children will initially protest, try to outcry you, till you lose the patience battle, because a habit is being broken — and habits, as we know all too well, die hard. Persevering, when that happens, is a game-changer. By offering children a specific time of the day or week when they can engage with a device, and clearly outlining how long they can use it for, a new habit can gradually be formed. This also reassures them that technology is not being forever taken away from them, but rather that their consumption should be more measured. I’ve found speaking to the children about why tech-time is being lessened, rather than simply snatching the device without explanation, also helps.

• Curate the content they can watch online: TikTok videos with blaring song, dance and foul chatter, worry me. These videos, in the form of reels, are now on YouTube as well. After watching these videos, our daughters have often posed questions to us, which have further startled me — being advanced is one thing but being inappropriate is a totally other. We tried moving them to YouTube Kids temporarily, but the transition didn’t last long; apparently, there wasn’t enough to keep them hooked. So now, we’ve reached a settlement: they can either watch a show or movie that we’ve approved on a streaming platform such as Netflix (Frozen, Peppa Pig, Encanto, the works), ideally on the TV screen rather than on an iPad or phone, or they can watch something edutainment-related on YouTube (number blocks and alpha blocks are particularly high on their list and admittedly, they seem to be acquiring new knowledge through these, which they enthusiastically share with us).

• Finally, I am finding reading and books to be the perfect antidote to tech overdrive: Ideally, the physical book but if not, an audio book isn’t a bad compromise. It isn’t easy encouraging children to read, read for pleasure, to hope they might enjoy the act itself, but it isn’t impossible either. As a parent, there are ways of being intentional about the reading habit, so as to coax it into a real possibility. Introducing designated family reading time, even for 15 minutes a day, is a hopeful start. It offers a routine and also means children are watching you model what you’ve been expecting of them all this while. Therein lies a shared experience, making reading appear less of a parent-driven imposition, demand or chore. It’s a lifestyle choice, a habit, a family culture you are collectively hoping to forge, just like you might encourage them not to litter on the street. Letting children choose titles of their choice, genres they might enjoy, also helps; your child’s reading preferences do not have to be identical to yours. Encouraging them to discover and develop their own reading taste, pick their own books, offers a sense of agency; so, when our girls express excitement at the Peppa Pig collection in a bookshop, I let them, whilst gently nudging them to simultaneously explore Charlotte’s Web.

When our older daughter was in Foundation Stage 1, her class teacher once told us that till a certain age, children are like sponges — they soak and absorb whatever their environment offers. Working with that logic makes the task of reducing screen time and raising a reader appear less difficult; that if the right tools are offered to our children, if we model some of these behaviours for them, they may be likely to gravitate towards new habits.

Often, though, we opt for the leisurelier route, we don’t consistently implement the guidelines we initially lay down, and children realise they can get away with it. I’ve definitely succumbed to those shortcuts several times in the past. But if there’s one thing our attempt to reduce tech exposure this time around is showing me, it’s this: that when I’m reprimanding the children about too much screen time, whilst scrolling through Instagram myself, those double-standards are far more obvious than I think they are; our children are smarter than we give them credit for, and they see through it, in fact, often times, even call it out.

The lesson this teaches me is vital; whilst we navigate this prickly terrain, and whether or not we successfully manage to balance technology with other facets of our children’s lives, the bottomline about all things parenting is making itself clear, not just about screen time or reading, but about everything else too: I can’t preach one morality to the children and practise another, it just won’t fly; and actually, it shouldn’t.


Saba Karim Khan is the author of Skyfall, released by Bloomsbury and works at NYU Abu Dhabi

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