Sixteen-year-old Darshini Kumar spends about 12 hours online every day. It has increased ever since the movement control order started because she can’t go to school and has to do her studies remotely. Since she also can’t go out for activities like she used to, she “hangs out” with her friends on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and others.
“The in-thing to do now is to hang out online and host virtual parties and meet-ups,” says the Form Four student from Kuala Lumpur. She admits having attended several “virtual parties” hosted by her friends during the conditional MCO.
For Lim Yue Kin, 17, from Petaling Jaya, his time spent online has increased to up to 14 hours daily during the MCO.
“Before the MCO, I would spend about seven hours on my smartphone or laptop on a typical school day – studying, surfing the web, and socialising with friends on social media. But since the MCO, my screen time could reach up to 14 hours a day,” says Lim, who started using the Internet at the age of six.
“I use it for anything and everything – such as researching for information for my studies, communicating with friends on social media (Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp), or entertainment (reading online novels and comics, playing games, and watching movies and videos),” he says.
For many young people like Darshini and Lim, the need for online learning and the lack of activities to do while staying at home, has led their smartphones and devices to be their main sources of education and entertainment.
Children’s Internet usage in Malaysia is on the rise, according to a Unicef study (Our Lives Online: Use of Social Media by Children and Adolescents in East Asia) which reveals that 92% of children aged five to 17 are internet users, 91.8% of these children access the Internet using a smartphone, and 92% of students aged 13 to 17 have social media accounts. On top of that, one in three Internet users are children, and over 175,000 children go online for the first time every day.
The study, which surveyed 301 boys and girls from four Asean countries, including 127 from Malaysia, reveals that the top online activities for children are text communication, social networking, online research and watching videos.
“While being online provides opportunities for children to learn and express themselves, it may also increase their exposure to risks such as cyber bullying or sexual exploitation,” cautions Unicef Malaysia representative Dr Rashed Mustafa Sarwar.
“As such, it is important that measures be taken to mitigate such risks, but balanced with children’s rights to freedom of expression, access to information and privacy,” he adds.
This is why we need to keep children informed and engaged, and empower them with the skills to use the Internet safely. Making it safer for children requires the collective cooperation of parents, teachers, government, civil society and private sector, Dr Rashed says.
Allowing children to spend so much time in front of their devices is simply not healthy, says psychologist Associate Professor Dr Anasuya Jegathevi Jegathesan, who does not recommend that children spend more than 10 hours a day online, especially if they are very young.
“A child needs to be able to physically move their body. They need to be able to challenge their mind and do different things and learn different skills.
“Moreover, they may develop eye problems, backache, headaches or wrist pain from spending too much time on the computer or mobile device,” she says.
Parents, she says, must regulate the time their children spend online and should draw up a timetable for them, especially if the child is very young.
“Parents need to manage their child’s time in front of the computer. Just like in school, there is time for learning, time for PE (exercise), time for playing, time for recess (rest), so parents need to plan for their child at home too,” she says.
“So, set a timetable for your children – with time where you can all exercise together as a family. Do physical activities together such as dance, play games, even board games, and not just sit in front of the computer. Although there are a lot of things that can be learnt in front of the computer, there are even more other skills to learn away from the computer too,” says Dr Anasuya.
“Parents and caregivers need to be a bit creative in getting a variety of activities that the whole family can do together," she says.
“Games that can be played, stories that can be told – do things with your kids that are not online – take out books, colouring, art, do different things.
“It does mean that parents will be more busy because they may have full time jobs, but they still have to look after their kids full time, and keep them occupied and entertained too,” she adds.
With children spending more time on the Internet, there is also the increased risk of being bullied, harassed or even stalked. It’s common for social media users (whether adults or children) to update their followers or contacts on where they are and what they’re doing.
This isn’t the wisest thing to do, especially for children.
“It is like providing all the information that pedophiles and potential kidnappers need on a silver platter. Unless your account is private, anyone can view what you post and find out all about you,” says Lim, who is also with the PJ Child Council (a programme to make the city more child friendly).
Darshini says that although she is active on social media, she makes it a point not to post information like where she is or where she is going. She also doesn’t post her personal particulars.
She reveals that this is because of a lesson learnt two years ago.
“At that time, I did post my school details on my social media. I thought it was harmless since there are so many students in my school, how would a stranger even be able to find me? Besides I didn’t add anyone whom I don’t know (on Facebook), it was just my classmates and other friends,” she says.
So she was shocked when a stranger contacted her via Facebook and even knew details about her such as which school she went to, which class she was in, and even that she used to wait for the bus at a particular time each day. What was alarming was that she was only 14 at that time, but the stranger was an adult and knew so much about her.
“I told my parents and immediately blocked the person,” she recalls.
The Unicef study reveals that two in five children have reported having bad experiences online they wouldn’t want to tell anyone about. What is even more alarming is that, according to the Unicef study, both boys and girls have reported receiving sexual messages and obscene images from strangers online. But fortunately, the majority of children who have been asked for videos, images or information of a sexual nature, have reported that they didn’t share what was requested.
But Darshini is thankful that she can talk to her parents and that they are social media savvy.
Since then, Darshini has reviewed the privacy settings of all her social media accounts and ensured that only her direct friends can view her posts and contact her. She also reviews any posts and photos that she is tagged in.
“If too much information is shared or I don’t feel comfortable, I will usually untag myself,” she says. “It may seem like a minor thing, but if you’ve gone through what I have, then you’re likely to be more cautious too,” she adds.
Fortunately for Darshini, the incident was nipped in the bud before it could escalate into something worse.
It’s very important that there be an environment of open communication between parents and children in order to help them stay safe when online, stresses Dr Anasuya.
“Having frank discussions with your children about online predators, cyber bullying and other such threats is part of helping your child to understand the online environment and to stay safe on social media. This will help children realise that people they meet online may sometimes be scammers and not what they appear to be. For example, a child may think they’re speaking to someone their own age, but it may be someone much older than them,” she says.
Also, if parents want to keep their children safe online, there must be some form of monitoring of what children are doing, says Dr Anasuya.
A majority of Malaysian parents do set controls over their children’s time online, according to the Unicef study: 75.5% report that they set rules and limits of Internet usage for the child, 75.4% monitor their child’s Internet usage by being nearby when their child is online, 71.1% educate and discuss about safe Internet use with their child, and 57.5% check their child’s social media account or browser history.
Lim’s reveals that although his parents don’t really “control” the time he and his sister spend online, when he was younger, his parents did set passwords or confiscate the devices so that he wouldn’t overuse them.
“My parents, although concerned about our online activities and often remind my sister and I about the dangers of the Internet and talking to strangers online, are generally flexible. They have also always reassured us that we can go to them if we face any potential risks online,” says Lim.
However, he believes that children also have the right to privacy and personal space.
“I believe that the best way to protect a child online is to teach them the skills needed to protect themselves such as how to identify predatory behaviour, what is cyber bullying, and who to contact if they’re being harassed online,” he says.
Childline Foundation (NGO that upholds the rights of children) project director Datin Wong Poai Hong says that parents need to be more involved and more savvy about what children are exposed to online.
“As parents, teachers and guardians, we often play catch up with our young ones when it comes to social media. The web comes as second nature to children, but is often unfamiliar to parents. We tell our children to not talk to strangers, but on social media, how many of these interactions are with people they know?” she asks.
Among the recommendations on how to build resilience in children, stated in the report, include integrating technology and social media into parenting and caregiver programmes as well as early childhood development programmes, and cultivating self-efficacy, confidence, empathy, decision-making and conflict resolution capabilities in children so that they are able to make appropriate choices when using social media.
Technology companies running social media platforms can also help keep children safe online by making their profiles private by default with the option of making them public through settings, changing the default option for new contacts to friends of friends instead of everyone, and blocking unsolicited photos sent by people outside the child’s contact list.
Dr Anasuya advises that parents make sure the device their child uses to go online be at a strategic spot that is visible to them always, such as in the family hall or area, and not in the child’s bedroom.
“So, even if parents are not sitting next to the child and monitoring them all the time, at least, when the parents walk past, they can see what the child is doing online,” she says.
“There are also security procedures that parents can use such as nanny cams and security devices that monitor the online usage and the sites that they surf to.
“Also, when they aren’t supposed to be online, such as sleep time or meal time, make sure they aren’t able to get online during those times,” she says.
“If the child’s bedtime is 9pm, then all the devices shouldn’t be in the child’s room at that time. Don’t give people access to your children when it’s time for your children to sleep,” she concludes.
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