The pandemic has impacted children in ways that are truly only being understood now. But clearly, one major area of concern has been technology. “Staying at home and resuming home schooling has definitely impacted their lifestyles, with children becoming much more attached to their devices,” says Dr Saeed Al Dhaheri. A futurist, thought leader, author, and a public keynote speaker, he is a veteran of the UAE technology industry with over 30 years of experience in driving technology adoption in various public sector organizations.

“Our studies showed that the average screen time of children has increased during the pandemic, with children spending 2-3 hours a day in front of the screen. This was an alarming finding, as the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends no more than an hour a day for children between the ages of three and four.”

Dr Saeed should surely know. He has held several senior positions. He is the founder and former Director General of the Emirates ID Authority, a former member of the scientific advisory committee of the UAE Space Agency, and a former Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs on information technology. Currently, the director of the Center for Futures Studies at the University of Dubai, an adjunct lecturer of public policy science & technology track at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government, he is also the chairman of the board of Smartworld (a leading digital solutions provider in the UAE), President of the Digital Engineering Chapter at the UAE Society of Engineers, and a board member of the Emirates Safer Internet Society.

Excerpts from an interview:

With the pandemic forcing children to spend more time on devices, how do you think this has impacted their thought process and lifestyle?

Our studies showed that the average screen time of children has increased during the pandemic, with children spending 2-3 hours a day in front of the screen. A survey has also highlighted the pressing need to better understand the impact of technology on early childhood development. To further elaborate on this, rather than finding ways to regulate or disengage our children, cutting them off from technology, we – as parents – should empower them to use technology positively. As government entities and policy makers, we should empower parents to showcase the positive use of technology, as we presently live in a digital first world and cannot, or rather should not, hinder our children from adopting technology. Instead, we need to provide them with positive habits and experiences.

What pointers do students need to keep in mind when consuming content online?

The Early Childhood Authority and WED Movement focus on children under the ages of eight. [The World Early Childhood Development (WED) Movement, established by Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority, seeks to develop pioneering approaches to address the imminent and future challenges facing the Early Childhood Development sector locally and internationally. By drawing on a diverse range of perspectives, WED Movement is intended to have a positive impact on children’s lives while strengthening the Early Childhood Development sector in Abu Dhabi and around the world.]

You may ask why this specific age bracket. That is due to this age group being the most critical time in a child’s life; where they learn and adopt healthy habits that they carry into their adulthood.

With this in mind, children need to be supervised and we need to work closely with parents as they manage what their children are consuming. We don’t want to limit the criteria of usage into two segments of good and bad technology consumption, but rather to find ways to empower parents and their children. We want children to understand the positive experiences that they can get from their screen time, and who better to show them than their parents?

The approach in restricting or stopping children from using certain tools doesn’t really suit the needs of our world. It would not align with the needs of our nation, as we look at the next 50 years and the invaluable role technology is playing in advancing our country’s infrastructure and society. Our children are being brought up in a digital-first environment, and it’s our responsibility to empower them and use digital to their advantage.

On top of this, it’s important to disconnect. Not only should we try to empower children and parents online, but offline as well. A chance to disconnect encourages offline experiences, and helps strengthen the bond between families and encourage better social skills.

We explore the importance of children being out in nature, spending time playing, enjoying the outdoors, not just by themselves but also with dedicated play-time with their parents.

What are some of the major challenges parents face as far as their kids’ increased exposure to technology is concerned?

One of the main challenges they are facing is due to the fact that they are not embracing technology as a constant, or embracing it correctly. Our survey showed that 58% of the surveyed parents had very low trust levels towards the digital platforms that their children are accessing. 

In looking at their parents, we also understand that the higher the education level of parents, the lower the level of trust towards digital platforms their children had access to. Also, older and younger parents had higher trust levels, in comparison to middle-aged parents (30-40 years old) who had the lowest trust levels.

Looking at this data, there is a clear misunderstanding on the role of technology in raising our children. It’s important that we look at the bigger picture. The behaviour of parents will inevitably affect their children.

Could you share some anecdotal evidence that you might have come across as well as statistics of abuse kids and families have faced online? Social media footprint and certain apps too have exacerbated the digital exposure of parents as well as kids. Can you share your thoughts on the gravity of the problem? 

As a member of the Emirates Safer Internet Society (eSafe), a registered non-profit organization, we have a prime goal of creating a positive online experience for children, youth and the wider community and protecting them from potential online risks, abuse and exploitation.

In this, we try to bring awareness and educate parents on cyber threats, including bullying and excessive online sharing. By doing so, we want these parents to take home best-practices to teach their children when faced with these, essentially, threats.

The government also plays an incredibly important role in bringing awareness to this and ensuring they are providing the best tools and practical solutions, in their respective countries.

In my work with the Society, we have child psychology experts and I can recall cases of cyber bullying in which we had children at an incredibly young age who were experiencing bullying online. These are children as young as 12-13 years old!

I have a daughter myself, and she shares a light on what she experiences at only age 12. All that we can do as parents is ensure we are empowering our children fully, online and offline, to be able to digest and move beyond hateful and negative experiences online.

We urge parents to encourage children to share these experiences and to not suffer in silence, so that these situations can be remedied. These issues can be raised at schools, and we have channels here in the UAE where these incidents can be reported.

What role has technology played in impacting the mental health of kids as young as those going to kindergarten?

I appreciate this question. Technology is being used throughout our children’s lives, from classrooms to at home. The impact that it has on their lives is a controversial subject, and what it has led to is the approach towards setting guidelines.

When we look at mental health, usually we think of older people. Teenagers, adults, who suffer from mental illness or general unhappiness. What we fail to focus on, is those under the age of 8. Children were also impacted during the lockdown, their habits and playtime were disrupted, their face-time with friends and classmates stopped all together.

All this has done is emphasize the need for positive social experiences, complemented with the use of technology. Parents are in the best place to create that balance. Family time is fundamental in a child’s development. The support and basis for their confidence and empowerment all stems from their relationships at home, which is why one of the recommendations from our Breakthrough Working Groups is that we need to disengage. What’s really exciting about the BWGs and WED Movement, is through our survey which we expect to conduct annually, we will have facts and figures to compare and analyze. We will be able to rely on data, to support our future and empower our children.

What pointers should parents keep in mind when using tech? What are some of the long term solutions you suggest?

I think I have highlighted a few steps – encouraging play time, disengagement, balance, and positivity, but we are missing one important player. We have looked at parents and children, but let’s look at technology companies and content creators.

We have worked to develop principles and a framework of guidelines that will enable and support tech and content companies to provide child centric content. This includes a number of important elements, from having child-friendly platforms, to using children’s voices in content.

Some major social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat have developed guidelines for children’s-use, and to support parents.

There are so many steps we can take, both in the long and short term, and that is why WED Movement was established by the Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority (ECA).

WED Movement is a global platform that focuses on creating and disseminating knowledge for the advancement of Early Childhood Development (ECD) in Abu Dhabi and beyond. Essentially it brings together the world’s leading experts, innovators, and disruptors to develop solutions on key themes for discussion and output through its Breakthrough Working Groups (BWGs). These outputs are created as actionable initiatives to positively impact the lives of children and are intended to empower the collective ECD ecosystem.

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