Opinion: We need a national conversation on parenting in the digital age

We need the government to engage in conversation rather than drafting legislation

Would the introduction of legislation banning those under 14-years of age from buying a smartphone prevent young people from accessing the internet? Would it stop cyber bullying? 

These are just some of the questions that arose after a Fine Gael Deputy proposed a bill that would make it illegal for phone shops to sell internet-enabled phones to under 14s. 

There is no denying that cyber bullying is an issue. It's also hard to difficult argue against the fact that some children are less social as a result of their use of technology. It is impossible, however,  to expect legislation such as this to have any meaningful impact on these issues. 

Taoiseach Enda Kenny called for a national conversation about porn not so long ago. I'm now looking for him to call for a national conversation about parenting in the digital age. 

Technology has introduced a host of 'unknowns' into our daily lives. We don't know how much is too much time to spend online. We don't know what the long-term effects of social media are. We don't know what platforms and devices will still be around in five years time. 

Parents today have to worry about their children growing up faster than ever before. 'Sexting', cyber bullying and online grooming are real issues that are impacting Irish children in this country right now. How can any one parent know what the right or wrong thing to do is in the long run? The solutions to these issues are unknown. 

Conversation

While I don't think legislation is the answer, I do think parents, teachers and young people need support and a full understanding of how the internet and social media work. This doesn't mean a patronising conversation about turning a computer on and off again. 

I'm looking for a robust discussion about how parents should regulate their child's internet usage. I'm looking for the social media networks to have to meet certain criteria before they are allowed have members. I'm looking for the introduction of digital safety onto the curriculum. 

The ISPCC Childline and Vodafone have started the conversation. They are engaging with industry leaders and young people to identify issues. Their findings will inform recommendations that they will make to the government and this will help form policy. 

While this is an incredible starting point, I believe that we need to do more. 

We need to have a conversation with young people, parents, teachers, government and those behind the social networks to see what can be done to ensure those engaging with technology stay safe. We need guardians to know how to react when an issue arises in the digital space. We need our government to understand the impact and implications life online has on our citizens.

My fear is that technology will continue to be painted as the bad guy and that children will grow up fearing it or using it on the down-low, rather than exploring the incredible potential it has to offer. 

I don't look at every invention or innovation in blind wonder and amazement. I am cautious about what I recommend and what I use myself. But I do see the benefits in embracing technology. 

As with most things in life, when used in moderation, under the supervision and with a good understanding of how to deal with an issue, technology is an amazing thing.