UAE: Families need to balance out what kids consume online in terms of content and context, expert says

Although technology connects people, it also disconnects people from each other


Ismail Sebugwaawo

Published: Wed 4 May 2022, 6:11 PM

Last updated: Thu 5 May 2022, 5:48 PM

Children are consuming more digital content than adults, and this could harm them physically, psychologically and emotionally, an international child expert has revealed.

Dr Phil McRae, executive staff officer and associate coordinator, government-research with the Alberta Teachers’ Association warned families to monitor their kids’ online habits to ensure they don’t consume inappropriate content or fall prey to predators on the dark web.

Speaking exclusively with Khaleej Times, Dr McRae, who is adjunct professor within the faculty of education at the University of Alberta, said generally, children spend more time with technology and gadgets than even their parents or families.

Dr McRae, who recently joined the UAE’s Early Childhood Authority (ECA)’s Breakthrough Working Group ‘Tech for Humanity’ and Abu Dhabi’s World Early Childhood Development Movement (WED Movement) said: “We see a spike in the use of technology in children between the age group of 10 and 11. They adapt to the use of technology and spend about four hours a day online.”

The expert said that although technology connects people in social media, it was also disconnecting people from each other. “You will see many children alone together, on their devices in the playgrounds or at school compounds as a positive action of being together,” said McRae.

“There is need for a fine balance between the connection while using technology and the disconnection, where children are outside playing and can learn critical social and emotional skills.”

He noted that it was critical to involve players in the technology industry, as well as families, researchers and educators to come together and talk about what is in the best interests of children.

“Populations and industry need to come together around children and the best content that they can consume,” said Dr McRae.

“With technology, it’s not only the digital content that children consume, but also the context in which they consume it. Content and context are both critical —whether on the child’s mobile phone, late at night in their bedrooms, and whether the content is inappropriate or dangerous for the children ,or are they with their family on the couch engaging them in the digital content that can help them play together or grow together.”

The expert said the digital content children that consume, and where and how they consume it also matters a lot.

How long can a child stay online?

According to Dr McRae, there is no specific screening time or hours for children. “But it is good thing to balance between time spent online and offline with the children developing relationship with other children and engaging in other activities that can nurture them for socialisation in positive ways,” he said.

The Canadian said technology should be looked at as nutrition or diet. “If most of the time is taken consuming something very nutritious, it might be a challenge. However, if you spend a day balancing out what your child can consume in terms of content and context, this way, we are approaching technology is a less rigid structural way, and making good decisions as parents, caregivers and educators,” said Dr McRae.

He noted that when the UAE is looking at early childhood development and technology, they are trying to consider the impact on the developing mind, body and the whole child. “I think that is a critical thing to do now in a modern era because we don’t have a full understating of the implications.”

Dr McRae said the WED movement is trying to gather researchers, trying to consider policy in practice in the UAE around technology, humanity, screen time, better balance, is a hopeful sign.

How families can protect their children

Dr McRae says families should be involved in their children’s online activities, participate with them and talk to them about what they are doing online.

“If you are participating with your children side-by-side, you may experience both the challenges and the joys that they are experiencing. It will also help you get an insight on who they are talking to, when they are talking to them, what is the content they are consuming. And it can help you guide them,” said the expert.

“Parents should also educate children about the online environment. Issues of trust and understanding may be different from the face-to-face environment,” he said.

How youngsters can be prepared for future workforce

The expert cited three key areas that can be considered for the future.

“The first is creativity; the kind of experience and content that will encourage creativity in children is vital. Machines that will displace humans in jobs during the future will not displace creativity,” said Dr McRae.

The second area is socio-emotional interaction. “We need to understand how we can engage with technologies that let us better understand humanity or let us to know each other in different parts of the world and give us deeper insight into the human condition, because machines won’t do that,” he explained.

The third area is fine-model manipulation. This is something that Artificial Intelligence won’t displace.

“We might start considering digital pens in bringing back digital handwriting. Something that is creativity with technology and brings that technology into the world through D-printing, things that are alive and which we can engage with, or children can engage with their hands.


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