Facebook has gained immense popularity as a social media website. It serves to connect millions of people across the world. But, in the backdrop of certain obnoxious incidents reported in Sri Lanka, the question arises whether under-aged children should be given free, unsupervised access to computers, Internet and Facebook.
It is appropriate to question whether these children should be given unhindered access to online sites. This is the dilemma facing parents as well as teachers. The Federation of Information Technology Industry of Sri Lanka (FITIS) is the biggest integrated body which represents the information technology (IT) sector in the country. Its members are well recognized, leading professionals in the IT sphere in Sri Lanka.
There have been many requests to these industry professionals to educate and enlighten society on the prevailing problems vis-à-vis under-aged children accessing computers, Internet and particularly Facebook. FITIS President Chinthaka Wijewickrama has come forward to tackle this knotty issue in a discourse aptly titled ‘How do we protect children from the Internet and Facebook?
Pros and cons
Today, computers have become an inherent part of life. In the current context, there are no offices without computers. Not only in the metropolis, but even in the rural segment most homes have computers. There is also virtually no home in Sri Lanka which does not have a television set today. Similarly, in the foreseeable future, there won’t be a single home without a computer.
A computer is a multi-function piece of equipment. A modern computer can perform multiple tasks. The tasks people of all walks of life and from diverse strata of society can perform using computers are wide, varied and substantial. The benefits are enormous, virtually boundless.
In day-to-day life, a computer at one’s command makes work easy, uncomplicated and fast. It renders efficiency through an organised and meticulous system, while enhancing accuracy and precision within a streamlined process.
But, in spite of their usefulness, computers also have certain negative features. Whether a computer is used as an instrument to do what is good or bad, fair or foul depends on its user. A computer is akin to a kitchen knife in a home. Just as much as a knife in a household can be used to chop vegetables or cut fruit it can also be misused to cut a person’s neck!
It is therefore, imperative to guide children who use computers to do what is positive and productive. What is called for at this point of time is close parental supervision and certainly not prohibiting under-aged children from logging on to the Internet merely because there are some inherent negative features.
To prevent children from using computers altogether is, in itself, a gross disadvantage and disincentive because in the long term, knowledge and expertise in information and computer technology (ICT) is mandatory and therefore, inevitable for higher studies of students and thereafter for professional advancement. The computer has come to stay and in this modern age, it is a vital tool in life.
The next important question that arises is whether to permit under-aged children to surf the web or whether they should be prevented from doing so. The positive aspects and life-long advantages of using computers are enormous and limitless. As explained earlier, there is also an inherent negative side to it.
Whether to grasp the positive factors of computer technology and use learning for self-development or to misuse the process for the wrong reasons is a matter which solely rests on the mentality of users. A country or a government for that matter cannot ban computers just because of the downside and negative features embedded in their day-to-day use.
It is an established fact in this modern age that a country which distances itself from new, innovative, state-of-the-art technology cannot work towards achieving positive economic development. We cannot remain isolated in the fast-changing world which is now becoming more a global village. We must go hand-in-hand with global trends and developments.
Computer knowledge is an essential component in the lives of students pursuing higher education and in the long-term in their chosen professions. It is considered a mandatory requirement and the key to self-development and prosperity. It is therefore, an injustice to deny students the use of computers. What is imperative in this context is to educate parents, teachers and students on the proper use of computers and the Internet in particular.
Parents as well as teachers should keep a close eye and ensure strict supervision over children using computers and surfing the web. They should also maintain a close rapport and find out what a child sitting at a computer does and guide, advice and help children along the way.
Parents and teachers should allocate a specific time for children to use the computer and the Internet. They should also monitor for what purpose children use this technology, which is a link to the outside world. Children should not be allowed to sit at a computer all day. It is also important for parents to block opportunities that can lead to an addiction towards computer and the Internet usage amongst children.
This is because addition to computer and the Internet usage can come at a tremendous cost in terms of children neglecting their studies and other extra-curricular activities. It could also translate into disrupting close family bonds. Children will remain aloof and there will be a noticeable change in their behaviour as they distance themselves from family and friends as a result of this addiction. Therefore, it is the bounden duty of parents to adopt preventive measures through close care and supervision.
Computers used by children should be placed in a common area of the house. It should be ideally positioned in a place frequented by the father, mother and other elders of the child. As a precaution, computers should not be placed in an isolated area such as a room, where children can use it at their freewill without being seen or supervised. Parents should keep a close tab on the games children play on the computer and the movies and videos/DVDs they watch. It is also advisable to keep an eye on the type of websites they log on to and the content they download from them.
Parents should be aware of the nature of the websites their children frequently log on to. By accessing the ‘history’ folder of a computer, it is possible to gather the sites a person had frequently visited within the past one to two months. Therefore, it is important to advice children not to delete the contents in the ‘history’ folder. Some clever children who develop a sound knowledge on computer technology resort to deleting the ‘history’ folder to prevent access to their parents to the websites they had surfed.
There is software available in the market which blocks adult sites that portray sexually explicit contents and violence. It is the responsibility of parents to install such software to prevent their children from accessing undesirable websites. Similarly, there is compatible ‘search engine’ software specially designed for children in the market, which parents can purchase and install. Children can be advised to log on to websites via the ‘search engine’. There are excellent websites for children. Teachers and parents can educate children on them to enhance their horizons of knowledge.
When a person accesses the Internet, he/she is automatically open to the whole world. Therefore, children should not feed any personal details or their photograph into online sites. Parents and teachers should differentiate between personal details and common information and educate children on this vital aspect.
There is no harm in feeding personal details into a website if it relates to common topics such as a singular achievement in arts or literature or a new and innovative creation so that others could read, admire and appreciate. Their comments by way of a feedback will also be useful.
When surfing the web, one comes across different individuals from many parts of the world. There will be especially diverse ‘friendship clubs’, which will readily extend an invitation to start a friendship. Striking a friendship and maintaining any links whatsoever with strangers should be completely avoided. It must be considered as taboo. Parents should seriously caution their children against such tie-ups.
Similarly, various unknown individuals will reach out to chat over the Internet. That is to gossip. Children should not be permitted to chat with strangers either. In life, we come across people who try to strike up a friendship or generally talk to us. Though such people are total strangers, we see them with our own eyes.
The difference is that those who use the Internet to either make friends or initiate a chat are strangers we cannot see with our own eyes. The intent and purpose of these ‘Internet strangers’ is more evil than good. Children should be forewarned about the destructive objectives of such unscrupulous elements.
Teaching children to use the email facility as a swift mode of communication is a plus point, but they should not be permitted to exchange emails with total strangers. Caution should be exercised in handling emails. It is important to remember that emails received from strangers or unknown sources should not be opened. The reason for this warning is that these emails could contain material such as photographs and video clippings unsuitable for children.
Under-aged children accessing Facebook is not recommended. It is not at all advisable. But, some parents who insist on giving their children a free hand in the name of independence allow them to use Facebook. If children are given unhindered access to Facebook, it is vital to include either the mother or father as a ‘friend’ in the site.
Then, they will have access to the friends their child had linked up with, the nature of the conversations the child has with them and, in turn, what they communicate with the child. This translates into keeping a close tab on the activities of children, which is a top priority in today’s context where bitter lessons have been learnt by those who had abused this online option.
Parents and children also could obtain advice and help in case of a threat on social media from Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (Sri Lanka CERT) or Federation of Information Technology Industry of Sri Lanka (FITIS).
(Chinthaka Wijewickrama is the President of the Federation of Information Technology Industry of Sri Lanka (FITIS))