It is hardly surprising that the iconic founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, along with a number of other tech CEOs and venture capitalists would strictly control their children’s screen time. The prefrontal cortex of the teenage brain, that regulates behaviour and evaluates the consequences of actions, continues to develop until the mid-20’s. In conjunction, the Striatum, the part of the brain strongly associated with motivation and reward is particularly active in the teenage brain. This combination predisposes teenagers to impulsive behaviour and increased risk-taking, along with a heightened sensitivity to instantaneous rewards. A fact which has been unashamedly exploited by these same CEOs, tech giants and app developers that shelter their own children from the excess use of tablets, smartphones and laptops.
FOMO (Fear of Missing Out!)
Instant Messaging apps have created intense pressure on teenagers to be online 24/7, instantaneously ready to post, respond, share, comment, and like. The term ‘FOMO’ (Fear of Missing out) refers to the anxiety and stress that can be artificially generated to compel teenagers to be constantly monitoring and responding to posts. This has led to attention deficits and sleep deprivation amongst the very age category that is most in need of consistent sleep patterns. It has also led to a ‘Matrix’-style artificial reality which, for many teenagers, is more important than the physical reality around them. Their online friends and likes become more important than developing real and lasting bonds with family and friends; online recreation and gaming become more important than developing proficiency in a sport as part of a healthy lifestyle, and online conflict is now becoming the primary driver for conflicts played out on the streets, schools and parks.
Children aged 11 or under have spent their entire life in the digital age. For them interacting with a touch screen was more natural than learning to walk. 54% of 0-2 year olds can swipe a touch screen with it rising to 76% for 3-5 year olds; 44% of 0-2 year olds can open apps with it rising to 75% for 3-5 year olds, and 33% of 0-2 year olds can take photos with it rising to 60% for 3-5 year olds. What is the long term effect on the psychology, character and emotional intelligence of a generation that has spent their entire life in a cyber reality? What is the effect on the self-worth and confidence of our young people when their entire self-image may be based on the number of likes they receive in an instant messaging app?
The essence of our responsibly as parents is to protect the innocence of our children and enable the fitrah (natural disposition inclined to belief in Allāh and morality) to flourish. We are now facing a generation, some of whom have had their entire life online like an open book, constantly posting pictures, updates, and running commentaries on the most intimate parts of their lives. This inevitably takes away inhibitions and removes their sense of hayā’. The concept of privacy and shame is lost as users race against one other to post the most shocking and attention grabbing media even if it be of their own selves. The Prophet Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said:
“Verily, among the words people obtained from the Prophets are this: If you feel no hayā (shame), then do as you wish.”
Many of us have made major mistakes in our youth which we would rather forget about. The beauty of Islām is the unique concept of Tawbah (repentance) which allows the sinful to seek forgiveness, rectify their actions and rejuvenate their lives instead of being paralysed by self-loathing. Now consider how much more damaging these mistakes would be if played out online. Our young people are growing up leaving a permanent digital footprint of their activities which can be exposed years later. Paris Brown was a 17 year old, appointed Kent’s first Youth and Crime Commissioner in 2013. She stepped down before taking up the post because of controversial comments she made on Twitter when she was 14. Prospective employers and educational institutions now routinely check candidates’ online profiles before offering positions.
A far more sinister manifestation of this problem is the intense pressure on young people, especially girls, to post suggestive or nude pictures of themselves online. 60% of teenagers surveyed said they have been asked for sexual images or videos of themselves, 40% of those questioned said they had created a sexual image or video of themselves, 25% said they had sent one to someone else by text, 33% said they had sent it to someone they knew online but had never met, and 15% said they had sent the material to a stranger. These images now become a permanent digital record that can be distributed and ruin a young person’s reputation. Worst still is the criminal element. It is illegal and a serious criminal offence to take, hold or share indecent photos of anyone aged under 18, even if the person who has the image is under 18 themselves. Not only could the person be prosecuted, but they could be required by law to register as a sex offender.
The internet has facilitated the easy and free access of media. Many of us pay little attention to infringement of copyright and will happily stream the latest videos for free without a thought to the possible consequences. Downloading a video for free could possibly mean downloading a virus or a Trojan to your device. Often videos are streamed from file sharing sites which connect to your device and can easily transfer viruses. The most common viruses are:
- Random Access Tool – remote webcam access sends back live recording to a hacker.
- Cryptolock – locks all files until a ransom is paid.
- Keylogger – records key strokes for passwords.
All of these viruses can have devastating effects on your and your family’s life but consider how serious the invasion of privacy would be if a hacker could gain remote access to a webcam in your child’s bedroom.
Regrettably, some of the heaviest traffic on the internet is pornography. It is relatively easy to circumvent online filters with proxies and often young people are several steps ahead of the adults trying to regulate their use. There is a misconception that pornography only affects boys. While it is true that boys are for more attracted to physical images of a sexual nature than girls, girls too are frequently accessing pornography due to peer pressure or simple curiosity. In fact, an entire genre of pornography has been developed specifically targeting girls. Low budget erotic novels are available for free download and often appear completely inconspicuous to adults who expect pornography to come in the form of erotic images. These smutty novels are often more shocking than explicit pornographic images, giving detailed descriptions of sexual acts over pages and pages of text. The sexual act scenes are made more appealing to girls by contextualising them in a basic romance story narrative which convinces the girls that what they are reading is not actually pornography but a romantic love story.
It is a strange reality that more boys play FIFA online then play football in real-life. The cyber reality is truly taking over the physical reality. Often to adults these games, which consume hours and hours of young people’s time, can appear like harmless amusement. But are young people just playing games online or developing strong emotional bands with complete strangers? Many of these games have an online community element where players remotely play in teams or against each other. This provides the ideal platform for sexual or ideological predators to gain the trust of young and impressionable minds. The tragic case of Breck Brednar illustrates this risk vividly. Breck was a 14 year old boy who was befriended by Lewis Daines, aged 19, on the popular ‘Battlefield’ and ‘Call of Duty’ game. Breck’s mother became concerned at the control being wielded by the older boy and reported him to the police. Despite Lewis Daines being on two national police databases the police took no further action believing that online grooming was a phenomena that only affected girls. The two boys moved their communication to a private messaging app and eventually Breck was lured to the older boy’s house where he was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death.
Nothing on the internet is for free. Accessing websites using an internet browser will often lead to a cookie (small piece of data sent from the website to the user’s computer via the browser) being stored on the user’s computer to compile long-term records of an individual’s browsing history. This is very powerful information to advertising companies who can then bombard young people with adverts at a young age while knowing their likes and interests via their browsing history.
More sinister than this is the way sexual and ideological predators can target young people who use instant messaging and chat rooms without appropriate privacy settings. App developers often purposely make the privacy settings and GPS location settings inconsistent, with each app having a different way of setting the profile to private not public, and switching off the GPS location settings. When this is combined with a care-free young person with a diminished sense of risk posting their full name, photos, mobile phone number, home address and favourite hangouts, the sexual and ideological predator has the most complete profile possible to exploit the young, naïve and vulnerable person.
The march of technology
The march of technology is relentless and a sensible approach is to manage the risks which come with that technology instead of trying to ban it completely. Blanket bans with technology rarely work and you only have to look back at the advent of television and smartphones to remember that while some Islamic scholars ruled their use impermissible due to the obvious risks, the technology embedded itself into our culture to the extent that their use became almost unavoidable. Think back to just 20 years ago when internet access required a modem, a telephone line and a PC with the user expectantly staring at a screen waiting for the dial-in dialogue box to connect. Who would have thought that within a few years that same internet access would be available without any in-built restrictions to a child in the palm of their hands?
Parenting principles from the Prophets (ʿalayhim al-Salām)
The Qur’ān is the blue-print for guidance in every aspect of our lives. We may claim to adhere to this ideal but how many of us actualise this principle when it comes to the most important aspects of our lives such as relationships.
Consider the opening verses of Sūrah Yūsuf where we see the most marvellous parent-child relationship unfold between a Prophet and a future Prophet (ʿalayhimā al-Salām).
[Of these stories mention] when Joseph said to his father, “O my father, indeed I have seen [in a dream] eleven stars and the sun and the moon; I saw them prostrating to me.”
He said, “O my son, do not relate your vision to your brothers or they will contrive against you a plan. Indeed Satan, to man, is a manifest enemy.
And thus will your Lord choose you and teach you the interpretation of narratives and complete His favour upon you and upon the family of Jacob, as He completed it upon your fathers before, Abraham and Isaac. Indeed, your Lord is Knowing and Wise.”
The young Prophet addresses his father in the most endearing terms while the significantly older father reciprocates this love and respect. Do we have relationships with our children based on love and respect? Do our children feel at ease with us to the extent that they can approach us and talk to us with that which concerns them and distresses them? Yūsuf (ʿalayhi al-Salām) confides in his father a matter which he knows to be significant while at the same time appears to cause him some distress. This is evident from the fact that he repeats the verb ‘I have seen’ twice while relaying his dream. His father listens carefully to him and does not dismiss him. Yaʿqūb (ʿalayhi al-Salām) is a Prophet and the forefather of a nation but he still makes the time to listen to the descriptions of the dream of his young son. They have developed such a strong bond that when the brothers seek to take Yūsuf away for recreation, Yaʿqūb (ʿalayhi al-Salām) objects on account of the distress caused to him when Yūsuf is taken away from him. How many of us have invested time with our children to develop this strong bond?
Upon hearing the dream, Yaʿqūb (ʿalayhi al-Salām) is aware that it signifies the glad tidings of greatness for Yūsuf (ʿalayhi al-Salām) but his first priority is to warn Yūsuf (ʿalayhi al-Salām) against the potential jealousy-fuelled plotting of his brothers. As parents it our responsibility to anticipate and warn our children of potential risks. When it comes to the risks of the cyber world, ignorance is simply not an excuse. Knowledge is power, so parents need to engage in a frank and open dialogue with their children about their use of devices, the apps they use, the kind of communications they have and the potential risks.
Finally, Yaʿqūb (ʿalayhi al-Salām) empowers his son with a vision of greatness. He does not leave him paralysed with fear over the plotting of his brothers but reassures him that he will be selected by His Lord as a Prophet and taught the interpretation of dreams. It is our responsibility to impart to our children a vision that inspires them towards greatness in religion and gives them self-confidence and belief, based on their talents and abilities. A vision that reaches beyond the short-term fix of the number of likes on a social media platform.
Guidelines for Parents
- Lead by example. If you want your child to restrict their use of devices then ensure you do the same. Have ‘sacred’, quality family time such as meal times, and family circle times for studying the Qur’ān when all devices are out of bounds including your own.
- Hand in devices at bed-time. Sleep time should be a time when all electronic communications come to an end. The Wi-fi can be switched off and all devices should be handed in to ensure a good night’s rest. It is more important to wake up for qiyām ul-layl (night prayer) and Fajr in congregation than answer messages.
- Have a work room. Where possible, children should not be in the habit of using devices secluded in their own rooms. Laptop, smartphones and tablets should be used in a study room and the child’s bedroom should be a place for rest and getting ready. Psychologically it is not good for children to be using the same space for sleep and study. It is likely to lead to a lack of mental alertness and drowsiness while studying.
- Consider carefully what age to give a child a smartphone. A smartphone is the most powerful and addictive of tools as can be seen by the number of men who reach for their pockets after a congregational prayer. Experts speak of the young brain not maturing until the mid-20s. Have an open and frank conversation with your child about what is the right age for them to own a smartphone. If not the mid-20s, then certainly mid to late teens when the child has a clearer awareness of risk.
- GPS location settings and privacy settings. Location settings need to be off in any app and the profile needs to be set to private not public. This is an essential non-negotiable part of safeguarding your child.
- Parental filters and monitoring software. Parental filters are useful when blocking unsuitable content but bear in mind that some filters can block valuable Islamic content. Monitoring software can be useful when logging the amount of online activity and the websites and apps being used in your home. Bear in mind that this needs to be done in consultation with your child and their awareness. The aim is not to ‘catch them out’ but have an agreed set of parameters that everybody in the family sticks to.
- Do nothing online that you would not do in person! This applies as much to adults as children! It is strange to find mature sisters who take great care when concealing their beauty with the hijāb but possessing no inhibitions about revealing profile pictures to their entire address book.
The art of parenting
It is attributed to ʿAlī (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) that he said ‘your children were born of a different era’. You cannot assume that through a natural process of osmosis they will soak up your values and cultural norms. Your children will make mistakes that embarrass and enrage you. It is important to remember at these times to be moderate and proportionate in your sanctions. The art of parenting is that your children should always perceive you as a parent who has more power than you actually have. If you overreact at the slightest provocation, then what will you do as a parent when they really do something serious? Having used every sanction in your armoury, your children will quickly realise that they have the upper hand.
It is the hallmark of all the Prophets mentioned in the Qur’ān whose parenting is depicted to make profuse duʿā’ for their children. The forefather of the Prophets, the Prophet Ibrāhīm (ʿalayhi al-Salām) is the role model for this. He, alone, makes approximately 12 duʿā’s for the religious welfare of his progeny in the Qur’ān. Duʿā’ is the recognition that regardless of what a parent does to safeguard their children, success is ultimately in the hands of Allāh and upon Him alone we place our trust:
And those who say, “Our Lord, grant us from among our wives and offspring comfort to our eyes and make us an example for the righteous.”
 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3296
 NSPCC and Childline survey 2013
 Al-Qur’ān, 12:4-6
 Al-Qur’ān, 25:74