Alarm bells over computers and child development

Research finds that 28% of three- and four-year- olds are using tablets

Psychologist Mary Aiken believes parents are becoming less able to provide safeguards alone and  filtering software is not always reliable.   Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Psychologist Mary Aiken believes parents are becoming less able to provide safeguards alone and filtering software is not always reliable. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Mon, Apr 14, 2014, 07:38

Children as young as three are increasingly using tablet computers in the home leading to calls for a debate in Ireland on how cyberspace should be controlled in the future.

Research from the UK, to be cited at a forum on cyber ethics in Trinity College Dublin tonight, has found 28 per cent of children between the ages of three and four are using tablets.

The 2013 Ofcom report also found 14 per cent of parents of children in that age group conceded their children knew more about the internet than they did.

Cyber psychologist Mary Aiken, one of a number of speakers at tonight’s ‘Cyber Ethics Public Forum’, believes the findings are comparable to here.

“The Irish experience is similar and if we are not there yet we are certainly heading in that direction,” she said.

“It’s an interesting study and what we need to do is to consider what that means in an Irish context.

“What it’s saying is effectively that it’s not just up to parents to try to look out for the welfare of children online; there is a societal duty there to help.”

Her arguments on the ubiquity of the internet and technology are not unfounded; she points to other studies that show how in Ireland two thirds of children aged nine to 16 go online several times every day while in the US, 25 per cent of three-year-olds also access content daily.

Tonight’s forum will also hear talks on the issue of coping with cyber bullying and on the legal, ethical and philosophical questions surrounding online privacy.

But for Ms Aiken, who is based at the RCSI Cyberpsychology Research Centre, the debate is one about how children interact with technology and its effects on their development.

Quoting the Canadian forensic psychologist Michael Seto, she noted the world was currently “living through one of largest unregulated social experiments of all time” with regard to such developmental impact.

“We have to increasingly think of cyber-space as an environment; it’s somewhere that our children go,” she said.

This can be particularly true of gaming interaction, as with social networking, where children may be interacting with strangers far older than they are and yet in a virtual space that does not always signal alarms.

“Who are these people? In a virtual world friendships and loyalties are built. The problem is who are these people and who is your child playing with.”

Ms Aiken, whose work has recently inspired the creation of a spin-off pilot of the popular CSI Crime Scene Investigation series, believes there is also a question to be asked about who ultimately takes responsibility for the associations the internet offers its users in terms of searching content - of the ethics behind the interfacing of machine intelligence and child development.

Plainly speaking, if your child searches the word ‘slim’, the search engine could deliver sites that are dubious in content or age inappropriate.

This responsibility for content delivery remains to the fore of debate with Ms Aiken believing that parents are becoming increasingly less able to provide safeguards alone and where filtering software is not always reliable.

And while acknowledging the positive aspects the internet delivers in terms of education and socialisation, she explains: “From the moment they log on they are interacting with algorithms.

“The more we get into the debate, the more chance we have of finding a solution. It takes a village to raise a child and this also applies to cyberspace.”

Tonight’s forum in the Stanley Quek Hall at the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute begins at 6pm and is free to the public.