In today’s age, children are born into the world and in many cases the first thing they are exposed to by their parents is a smartphone to capture and share their newborn images. This is often an indication of things to come, where electronic devices become a consistent part of their lives. The presence of such devices mean that children are going online at a younger age, but what implications could this have?

According to the United Nations, young people aged 15–24 are the most connected and technology-literate age group. Worldwide, 71 per cent of this age group is online compared with 48 per cent of the wider total population.

With an ever increasing number of devices and homes being connected to the World Wide Web, access is becoming readily available for all. Not only is it more accessible, it is also more enticing with additional reasons to spend time online such as new social media platforms, games, music, movies, and other types of content.  

I recently had the privilege of serving as a coach for a Lego Robotics Programme, run by the Aga Khan Education Board in Canada. In honesty, I was somewhat apprehensive of being placed in a teaching environment when I hadn’t used my coding skills for a number of years. I didn’t need to worry however, as the entire curriculum was provided by Lego, and furthermore, the six students in my group (all aged eight) were incredibly familiar with using technology.

In reality, it was magical watching the children grow in knowledge, skill, ability, and confidence as they planned their mission to the Moon. I was in awe of the competent way they used a tablet computer and smartphone to programme their robots and how much they enjoyed it. They formed a tight-knit group, based on guiding principles, shared values, and regular team high-fives.

This type of engagement with and immersion in technology would not have happened even a decade ago, and it speaks volumes of the potential that the Internet offers us.  Some of the children in my group now want to be engineers because of what they learned, and they cannot wait for the next programme.

The influence of digital technology can have a positive impact; the Internet offers new ways to communicate, interact, and learn. Children living with disabilities can interact on an equal footing with their peers. Online, their abilities are more visible than their disabilities. Young people fleeing conflict zones can make use of digital technology provided by charities to enable them to continue learning, even when local schools are not operating. Young activists can use the Internet to share their stories with the world, reporting on a lack of safe water and sanitation in their community for example.

However, the same technologies can also have negative effects and can represent a threat to our established way of life and well-being. Young people can develop mental health conditions due to cyberbullying. Teenagers and others are unfairly targeted by marketers, and can even put their safety at risk because of the personal information they inadvertently share online. Children whose video game habits have taken over their lives can lose the ability to socialise and learn effectively.

In a speech made at Brown University on 10 March 2014, Mawlana Hazar Imam spoke of the mixed implications of the technologies available in today’s digital age:

“More information at our fingertips can mean more knowledge and understanding. But it can also mean more fleeting attention-spans, more impulsive judgments, and more dependence on superficial snapshots of events. Communicating more often and more easily can bring people closer together, but it can also tempt us to live more of our lives inside smaller information bubbles, in more intense but often more isolated groupings.”

Hazar Imam continued, “We see more people everywhere these days, standing or sitting or walking alone, absorbed in their hand-held screens. But, I wonder whether, in some larger sense, they are really more ‘in touch?’ Greater ‘connectivity’ does not necessarily mean greater ‘connection.’”

These words ring very true when we take a moment to look around and see that in most public places, the vast majority of people are fixated on their smartphones. This is particularly applicable for the younger generations who are rarely seen without their electronic devices.

Social media platforms allow users to be part of online communities which can lead to them immersing themselves in a virtual existence. Without balance for some people, their online life may become more meaningful than their actual life. Another contributing factor to virtual lives is gaming, where the entire experience can allow users to be submerged in another world.  This is now taken even further with the use of headsets that provide 360 degree and sometimes 3D experiences.

Having conversations with children and teenagers about their online behaviour and monitoring it is important. Knowing about their interactions and setting ground rules for Internet usage at home is important.  

There are many useful articles from reputable organisations that help to highlight topics you can discuss with children and young adults. All in all, it is possible to coexist in a healthy way in both actual and virtual communities so long as balance is maintained and lines of communication remain open.