Screentime, Social Media & Keeping Muslim Children Safe on the Internet

Our children have grown up with tech at their fingertips and observing adults around them glued to laptops and phones.

A year or two ago, I came across an interview with a high school teacher online. He asserted that parents who do not put restrictions on their children’s devices are ‘extremely misguided’. I found myself feeling quite offended at this claim and defending my liberal take on parenting of my teens, then 15 and 12. Surely I knew my own children and had assured them to come to me with any challenges they faced. Surely the space and freedom would only intensify inner strength, discipline and responsibility?

I have since swallowed my pride and changed camp to the side of the teacher, empathetically willing unguarded parents to be warier and less credulous. Why? Because, unfortunately, it is not that simple. The kids are too vulnerable and the ask of them is too great.

The internet is an undeniable part of our children’s lives, and indeed our own.

It is how we connect, conduct our work and get our entertainment. The advancement of the last 30 years makes it unfathomable that we once witnessed painstaking dial-up connection and endured several minutes of screeching before we got online. Technology has moved at such a pace it can feel impossible to keep up.

Our children have grown up with tech at their fingertips and observing adults around them glued to laptops and phones. Most if not all teens use tablets and PCs in school and for set tasks at home. This has given them access to resources we could only dream of at their age in the form of online textbooks, tutorials, YouTube videos explaining every phenomenon we could possibly wish to explore and many you probably wouldn’t.

Why limiting screentime and social media is important

But there must be a reason that tech executives Bill gates and the late Steve Jobs limited screen time for their own children. In fact, Steve Jobs did not allow his children to play with the IPad he helped create. And it was widely reported Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel imposed a restriction of 1.5 hours of screen time a week for his children.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) advises parents to limit screen time for under 5s to only 1 hour a day. This is mainly because of the impact of using screens on the developing brain and the addictive behaviours it induces.

Although studies are still relatively sparse in the area of social media and its impact, especially on young people, some dependency behaviour has been seen in teens, especially those with poor mental health. We all relied that little bit more on screens and social media during the Covid-19 pandemic.  But as the world has opened up and as the days draw longer, it may be a good opportunity to redress the balance for everyone’s benefit.

A 2021 study found that ‘adolescents whose social media use problems increased reported increased depressive symptoms one year later’. They observed attachment behaviours, mental preoccupation and frustration.

Another study in 2019 looked at YouTube usage among teens. Scientists found that teens who do have high social media use can ‘put themselves in a position of vulnerability toward addictive behaviours online, especially on YouTube where parasocial relationships appear to be easily flourishing’. The study concluded that ‘the more socially anxious individuals are, the more their parasocial relationships with YouTubers may lead to YouTube addiction.’

Studies conducted on younger teens have found that the theme of depression jumps 27% if they are frequent users of social media.

So what’s the solution?

That is the elusive question no one seems to have the answer to. Not even the experienced parenting instructors we look to for guidance. Indeed, they themselves are in the perpetual process of trial and improvement. But here are a few learning points from the benefit of my humble experience and that of others around me:

  1. Doing nothing is not an option – as much as we feel we trust our teens and have taught them right from wrong, the allure of phones, apps and social media are so compelling, it is nigh impossible to resist and regulate without profound discipline or external help.
  2. Consult your teens on a way forward – children feel respected and listened to when their opinions are sought and they are more likely to buy into new rules that are made in agreement with them. It doesn’t mean they will abide by them fully but they are more accountable where they have been involved in the process and decisions.
  3.  Keep open dialogue – when your children and teens face a challenge or a dilemma, you want them to know you are there to listen and to guide them. Be open and do not judge. Validate their feelings and reassure them where possible. Work together to reach a solution.
  4. Know your enemy – the best way to understand what your child uses and empower them to navigate it safely is to download it yourself. Whether it is Snapchat, Instagram or YouTube, set up an account yourself, explore the platforms and develop a sense for the pros and cons your child may experience. This can then inform the discussion.
  5. Explore restriction programmes –  these can vary considerably in terms of functionality, complexity and cost. The simplest are the settings on the device which can often restrict certain timings, sites and adult content. Other examples are OurPact, Qustodio, Bark and Family Time.

Don’t be in denial about Porn – Indecent images surround our teens in movies, music videos and elsewhere. This induces an attraction and curiosity which is easily fed online. As hard as it may seem, it is important to discuss porn with your child in an age-appropriate manner.  This will allow them to be better informed and approach you with questions or challenges. A good resource to help have these conversations is Good Pictures, Bad Pictures by Kristen Jensen.

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