When Children Meet Technology: A Threat or Opportunity?

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In speaking about the relationship between children and information technology, we can sometimes be tempted to only view technology as an adversary that does nothing but corrupts the young minds of children. In Indonesia, a survey has revealed 60% of children in Indonesia have access to the internet via mobile phones, the highest score of the studies which were conducted in Japan, India, Indonesia, Egypt, and Chile (Children's Use of Mobile Phones, 2012). Combine this with anecdotes of cyber-bullying, sexual exploitation, access to unsuitable content and the government's massive efforts to combat inappropriate materials, we can be excused for not having a positive view on the relationship of children and technology.

As the government and civil societies adopt a fighting stance towards the adverse effects of the Internet, we are reminded of the adage: that generals always prepare to fight the last war – meaning that the authorities’ strategies are often primarily rooted in prior experience. When a new challenge arises, they repeat what worked last time. In adopting one simplistic narrative and approach, we perhaps have missed the bigger picture and make a costly mistake.

How should the relationship be properly constructed? What are roles of government, civil society organizations and the general public in dealing with effects of information technology on children?

To answer these questions, on Friday, October 12, 2018, PUSKAPA in collaboration with UNICEF held a learning series titled "Children & Technology: How is Technology Affecting Children? What are The Opportunities & Threats?" Present as speakers were Roy Huijsmans (Lecturer/ Professor in Children and Youth Studies from ISS, Erasmus University), Aris Kurniawan (Head of Information Utilization unit of the Ministry of Communications and Information), and Donny B.U (Digital Literacy Officer, ICT Watch Indonesia).

Professor Huijsmans began the session by raising the point that children are not solely users/consumers but also producers/content creators. This new perspective is interesting as it provides an alternative narrative to the commonly accepted victim v. aggressor; that now the relationship between children and technology is also that of a market relation.

He went further by presenting the initial findings of his research in Vietnam about SIM card companies marketing campaign towards children and how children narrate histories of their mobile phones. The results are interesting. A well-known provider company performed an age-based marketing strategy and managed to aptly identify certain moments where children are financially able to purchase a new number. From the children's point of view, the anecdotes are no less fascinating. At the young age of 12 or 13 years old, the respondents already have quite a lengthy history of owning a mobile phone and buying new ones as new trend emerged.

Professor Huijsmans ended his presentation by stating that at their tender age, children already have plenty of stories about their experience with technology. He reminded the audiences that threats and dangers still exist but also that as we work towards children protection that we should start looking into the roles of companies.

Continuing the discussion, Aris Kurniawan explained the role of government. With 360 million registered and verified SIM card numbers, Indonesia now stands as the 4th largest user of mobile phones in the world. In the past, multiple efforts to build digital literacy have conducted with varying degree of success. However, in the past month, these various approaches are finally unified under the Digital Literacy sub-directorate of the Ministry of Information and Technology. Cyber Drone 9 – a task force comprising 80 staff working three shifts around the clock – aims to monitor and filter access to anything from pornographic to gambling to extremist politics websites.

Concluding the session, Donny B.U reemphasized the importance of building a digital literacy among young Internet users. In a nation known for its very low reading interest, this effort remains a big challenge. Nevertheless, as more children spend their time being online than reading books, efforts must be made to ensure that they get challenged intellectually by being exposed to various points of views so as not to be trapped by the so-called echo chamber effect.

The session ended with multiple views presented. The question of whether prohibition or education is the best way to fight the harmful effects of the internet remains. Nevertheless, no matter what our views are, it is imperative to acknowledge the complexity of the issue, and from that starting point, we can hopefully find the best approach to deal with the situation.