Digital education. The delicate balance

Families and educators are faced with a complex ecosystem of screens in which, at times, the management of time, freedom and necessity seems difficult. The technologization of life is already a reality with which we coexist and before which, as in everything, the main thing is to "get our heads on straight". 

Maria José Atienza-September 19, 2021-Reading time: 6 minutes
Young people taking a selfie.

In the first quarter of 2021 alone, the number of cell phones sold reached 354.9 million worldwide, and an estimated 70% of the world's population has a cell phone. According to data published by DitrendiaMore than half of the world's web traffic is done from mobile devices, and the average time of use already exceeds 3.5 hours. Adding up the hours, we spend more than a month and a half a year - 48 days - on our cell phones, whether for business, online shopping or leisure consumption through mobile devices. 

Our world is a world of screens, and this does not mean that it is worse or better than the previous or future ones. It is what it is, and therefore, knowing and understanding this digital environment, as well as being aware that technology can be an ally and not an enemy in our daily lives, cannot be seen as a utopia but rather as a"a necessity". So thinks María Zalbidea, trend analyst and mother of 4 children who has become a reference in the field of what we could call "digital education". 

For years, through his blog Bridging the digital divide, the book of the same title and collaborations with different entities, María helps families and educators to understand and manage the digital world in which we find ourselves and the behaviors derived from this reality that affect, to a great extent, family relationships. 

With great clarity he explains to Omnes that "It is an exercise of parental responsibility to know what your children are doing on the Internet, what they like to see, share, what they vibrate with...from there you will have material to educate, chat with them and really connect with your children. If we do not understand that technology can be an ally instead of an intruder and an enemy, we will continue to turn our backs on the reality of the world in which our children live. That doesn't exclude that we have to be aware and work hard in families on the good that we can extract from the technology that has been installed in our homes and learn to use it to our benefit".  

The technological pandemic

The first quarter of 2020 precipitated the digitization of many of our behaviors. The arrival of the pandemic, the confinement and the alteration of the work and social routines of millions of people meant that, during the first stage of the pandemic, the time spent using mobile applications grew by 30 % in China, in Italy by 11 % while in countries such as Chile or Spain the growth experienced was around 6 %. 

It should be noted that, during these months, technology enabled and facilitated such important aspects as the continuity of work and study or online classes. It also served, on many occasions, to get to know and be aware of the technological habits of the people with whom we live. 

To a certain extent, the almost obligatory coexistence with technology has cut distances in many families in which, on occasions, parents were almost overcome by the speed and volatility of digital advances and fashions, victims of what Zalbidea calls "the intergenerational digital divide", that as she points out "It exists and will always exist. But as parents we cannot throw in the towel and we must begin as soon as possible to sew it with stitches, with a basting stitch or with staples if necessary. Otherwise, we would miss a magnificent opportunity to educate our children. The digital transformation we are living makes everything go too fast, and today's parents are among the first generations to educate in a hyperconnected world, but it is an exciting adventure that we must take with enthusiasm. The secret is the same as always: time, dedication and love. With these ingredients we will be able to overcome this digital tsunami and even ride the wave". 

Today, digital behaviors aimed at making our lives easier have become established, such as banking or online shopping in large businesses, but also in local environments; the cell phone is also emerging as the main leisure device, especially among young people. All these data show us a clear picture: we live in a technologized society. Habits have changed, tasks have been simplified and professions have been born that did not exist not just ten years ago, but five years ago. At the same time, as is natural, problems arise from the omnipresence of devices in our daily reality and at increasingly younger ages. 

Family conflicts are frequent due to inappropriate use of technology, either because of excessive use of time or more worrying problems, such as addiction to online games, relationships with strangers, access to inappropriate content and overexposure of minors (and adults) or cyberbullying, which, according to data offered by GAD3 for EmpantalladosThe digital behavior of their children during confinement was at the forefront of parents' concerns.

In this sense, Zalbidea points out a key issue: if parents or educators do not have, and show, a healthy relationship with the digital world, the younger ones will not have it. "We talk too much about minors' use of technology and look too little at ourselves." notes this trend analyst. "I am increasingly convinced that, as parents and educators, we are the ones who determine the relationship we want to have with technology in our family. How you use the devices depends on how the little ones relate to them. Children observe us, they have to see that we try to have a certain self-control over the devices, that we also struggle to disconnect, that we understand technology as a complement in our lives, that we try to make good use of the media...". 

Knowing your digital identity

Making a "digital census" of devices and drawing a "technological profile" of the family members are two of the recommendations that, as an expert in this field, María Zalbidea makes to parents when talking about a healthy digital life. For Zalbidea, "it is essential to collect data, and more data... We live in the era of big data and we all know that data is the oil of the 21st century. The more in our homes we need to know what's out there." 

How many cell phones do each member of the family have, do I know my children's social network profiles, what information do I share about my family members and to whom, how many times a day do I look at my cell phone? All these data, put on paper, can be frightening, because, on many occasions, we are not even aware of our own relationship with technology... but it is essential to carry out this personal and family study to get to know our children or students better and better, with the purpose of "We are able to accompany them in this digital environment in which they grow up and to launch them to eat the world in analog and digital. Once we measure the technological temperature of our home we are able to draw a medium, short or long term plan that fits us and helps us". 

You cannot educate with fear

At this point, another key question arises in this relationship: how can we overcome the fear that we may have of our children feeling watched and achieve the opposite of what we are looking for? "Dare".Zalbidea responds sharply, "spend time on that platform called Twicht that your teenager likes so much, ask him who Ibai Llanos is, what app he uses to make those cool videos he makes for his friends' birthdays... That will give you many clues and will bring you closer to your children. 

But, above all, get rid of your fears. You cannot educate well with fear. Parents know much more about everything than they do: they can't beat us in terms of life experience, even if they know how to configure the devices better. They don't know so much, really, we have to manage not to lose authority in front of them making them see so many times how digital immigrants we feel. It is time to take a course, read a good book, listen to a podcast... There are many resources on the web that can help us to approach digital education as an accompaniment. We can't spend all day thinking that we have to watch what they do: it's more a matter of guiding and accompanying to connect with them and thus be able to protect them." 

Leading by example 

The concern of parents and educators is not in vain. In addition to the physical problems related to obesity or vision loss caused by overexposure to screens, there are no less worrying mental health problems: anxiety, stress, insomnia, harassment, eating disorders, cyberbullying and depression that are directly related to the constant presence on social networks. 

The need for a healthy diet in the digital realm is just as important as in the physical realm. And the reality is that the "lack of head" in the network is not only the heritage of adolescents. Around 25 % of children have a presence on the Internet even before they are born, because their parents post images of ultrasound scans during pregnancy. This figure rises to more than 80 % of children from birth to 6 months of age. Not only photographs are shared and published, but also explanations of places, hobbies, games they like, meals and even "embarrassing" moments such as tantrums or baths are exhibited on the network. A clear situation of real digital insecurity to which we expose our children.

María Zalbidea is clear about this type of behavior: "It has never been more important to educate by example. We are the first ones who have to demonstrate that we are capable of caring for and managing our children's digital footprint, from the time they are very young, without subjecting them to excessive overexposure. 

If we do not take care of our reflective attitude towards what we read and share on social networks, how can we expect a teenager to do it? If we are always looking at the updates on our smartphones, how are we going to ask them to have measure and responsible times of use? 

However, if they see that we intend to take care of our digital well-being and that of our family members, it will help our children look forward to managing their relationship with technology in a responsible and healthy way.".

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