THE BLOG
10/17/2014 01:48 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

The Virtualization of Childhood

JGI/Tom Grill via Getty Images

Internet, the global system of interconnected computer networks that was created to defend geographic boundaries, has now morphed into a system that transcends the very same boundaries. This independent medium of communication, information and entertainment ("infotainment," as the neologistic portmanteau goes) has spun its web across borders, peoples and ages and has joined death and taxes in equating people. Internet usage amongst the world's population has more than doubled between 2005 and 2013, from 16% to 39%. Given that the world population was 6.916 billion in 2013, this statistic points to a whopping 2.7 billion people entangled and engrossed in an expanding mesh.

The extensive proliferation of Internet media in human life has naturally led to its infiltration into childhood. A couple of decades ago, the television was dubbed the "idiot box" and touted as the incorrigible avatar of Satan, aimed at corrupting young and old minds alike. The accusation was justified by an entire generation that spent much of its childhood slouched in front of a medium that Bill Watterson, via the incomparable Calvin, aptly described as one that elevated emotions, reduced thought and stifled imagination. The TV generation, having offered its collective brain as "humble sacrifice to the flickering light," is, within a blink of an eye, being overrun by a new generation whose affections have turned to an even more powerful medium -- the Internet. This has been driven by a combination of factors: the technological advances in the hardware and tools for Internet communication, the increasing interactions and content available online for all ages, the often addictive use of this medium by adults themselves and the morphing of a hive-society of cohabiting grandparents, cousins and friends into a collection of disjoint, individualistic and nuclear physical groups have all contributed.

A recent study of media literacy among children, titled "Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes" shows that although children (ages 5-15) in general continue to watch television more than going online, tweens and early teens spend more time on the web than the box. While this study is restricted to the United Kingdom, the results may well be extrapolated to other countries that fall high on Internet usage. This trend is understandable because tweens and teens are an impressionable group that is influenced significantly by peer recognition and pressure and thus socializing online and being informed of the latest in peer-recognized fields assumes greater importance than passive television watching. This is particularly evident in the fact that these children are most concerned about their image online -- according to them, there were three frightening things about the net:
  1. "Bad things friends have written" about them
  2. "Friends being nasty mean or unkind" to them and
  3. the pressure to "appear popular or attractive online."

Notwithstanding the risk of gender stereotyping, girls appear to be more influenced by the Internet than boys perhaps because of their natural proclivity to social image.

The accessibility to hand-held Internet-enabled devices has made it easier for children to fully utilize the Internet medium; tablets have ceased to be pills prescribed by doctors. It is interesting that while parents restrict smartphone use time for children, there aren't as many restrictions placed on the tablet, which, going by the many "LOL"-worthy online videos of infants and gadgets, has apparently emerged as a babysitter, among many things. Children use tablets to play games, both on and offline, and tweens and teens use them to socialize through media sites, sharing, liking, poking and throwing digital mammals at friends, although the last disturbing activity has, to the writer's relief, lost momentum. The Internet medium is also used to enjoy music/movies, a welcome trend, despite the unethical demon of piracy that has been unleashed, and online shopping.

There is now also an increasing trend of using the tablet and other online devices to obtain information and knowledge for home and school work, a library-on-the-go, if you will. This is a positive use of the Internet among children, but carries with it the onus of recognizing useful and reliable information against falsities. The absence of peer review and censorship on the web makes it very easy for chaff to be sold as seed.

As with any emerging technology, there are more brickbats than bouquets to children using the net. The biggest concern is safety. Cyberworld mimics real world, and the intersecting region of the Venn connecting the two has been growing exponentially. The danger to children in cyberworld is just as real as in real world, or perhaps even greater because of the anonymity possible on the web and the lack of unifying rules and laws that govern and manage this parallel universe. Age-inappropriate information, cyber-bullying and harassment are very real risks and must be taken seriously by the caretaker adult when a child enters cyberspace.

Other foul cries to the induction of children into online media include such fuzzy issues as degradation of attention span, waste of time, inability to distinguish reality from a partly-imaginary world and deterioration in health from spending longer periods sitting as opposed to doing physical activities. A common pseudoscientific complaint is that the Internet promotes site hopping, hypertext jumping and screen-staring that alter neural pathways. To play the devil's advocate, so what's new? The Broca and Wernicke areas of the brain co-evolved with language in humans. The complex neurological pathway associated with reading is a highly malleable system, constantly evolving with use. Changes in the mode of reading would certainly alter them; whether the changes are beneficial or not cannot be ascertained just yet. The lack of attention, on the other hand, is a classic chicken-egg case -- does the Internet cause jumpy brain activity, or is it the other way around? Carpal Tunnels and juvenile computer vision syndromes are now part of the medical dictionary, no doubt. On the other hand, online gaming has also been proven to improve brain-motor skills and cannot be branded as destructive. Moderation, as difficult and subjective as it may be, is the key.

It has never been easy to accept that normalcy of change. My grandmother claims that the world is not what it used to be in the sepia-toned era of yore, sans television and tablets, and so would I when a new technology renders the Internet obsolete. But such complaints stem from the Golden Age syndrome and it is important to recognize it as such. The Internet media insurgence into childhood is a natural and real event. As with any event involving childhood, the responsibility of safety and utility lies with the parent. A parental role in educating children on Internet safety is essential, and this, in turn, hinges on thoroughly understanding the risks and benefits of this medium.

Writing credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger who is just as passionately opinionated about the juxtaposition of technology, parenting, and education.