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Raffique Shah


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Slaves to digital devices

By Raffique Shah
December 14, 2014

Some nights ago, a television news reporter covering one of the Prime Minister’s toys distribution functions asked eight children what they would like to get as Christmas presents. All seemed to be between ages five and ten. One boy said he wanted a truck and a girl screamed, "A doll house!"

But the others, almost in unison, said they wanted "ah laptop, ah iPhone and ah tablet"—all three devices, or at least two.

Now, I looked at a cross section of the hundreds of children and parents who attended the function. They appeared to be of ordinary means, maybe even poor, understandably so because I’d hate to think the well-off would seek to sponge off Santa Kamla.

As the news focus shifted to more mundane matters—murders, hints of corruption, plunging oil prices—I wondered how the parents of those children would satisfy their craving for technological toys.

I was not surprised that the majority hoped Santa would bring them the now-ubiquitous tech devices. Trinidad and Tobago has one of the highest mobile phones penetration rates in the world, by now around two phones per person, with a high percentage of them having broadband capability.

Laptop computers probably exceed the number of non-curricula printed books that people own and read. Indeed, with every secondary school entrant being the recipient of a taxpayer-funded laptop before he or she gets all her textbooks, the time will come when we shall have more computers than books.

As for the tablets that our parliamentarians are glued to during sittings, except for when they are speaking, this device is fast gaining popularity, and again, in time to come it seems set to wrestle with smart phones for dominance.

In this technological tidal wave that is inundating the country (and the world), I have not mentioned the three or four HD television sets that most homes are equipped with, or the iPods and other entertainment devices that are commonplace.

Before I return to our children’s craving for these instant-communication devices, I hasten to declare that I have long accepted the technological revolution. I have used computers since the 1980s, and the Internet since it came to Trinidad in the 1990s. I resisted the mobile phone until one was imposed on me (in 2001), and I have owned and fully utilised an Amazon Kindle e-reader for some four years.

So I am not against the use of technology. My concerns are how we introduce these devices to children, at what ages they are allowed access to different levels of communications, and what degree of control parents must exercise to ensure they benefit from it rather than abuse it, or worse, they fall victims to the cyberjungle that has messed up the minds and lives of so many young people.

When I hear that primary school pupils, who must be younger than 12, have Facebook accounts and smart phones, I cringe. Do the parents who buy and equip them with these devices understand what they are doing?

Because of the times in which we live, and as a safety measure, I can understand all children having basic mobile phones to stay in contact with their parents, siblings or other adults they need to communicate with.

Mostly, though, children six and older can be seen "texting" or listening to music on their phones, which suggests they have broadband access. Teenagers are glued to their phones or tablets, unaware of what’s happening around them, which is dangerous. Indeed, once children enter secondary schools equipped with broadband-ready laptops, the devices become extensions of their selves, keeping them "connected" even as they sleep!

Do such parents—and they are in the majority—realise what they are doing to their children? With unlimited freedom on phones and the Internet, you are not unleashing creativity, you are stimulating online addiction, maybe even creating monsters.

Steve Jobs, a founder of Apple computers and the brain behind its i-derivatives, was asked by New York Times reporter Nick Bilton in 2010 (he died in 2011), "So your kids must love the iPad?" The company had just launched the hugely successful tablet. Jobs shook his head. "They haven’t used it…we limit how much technology our kids use at home."

That response spurred Bilton to check with other tech wizards on how they approached their children’s use of technology. The findings were instructive. They all imposed stringent rules, banning the use of gadgets on school nights and allowing limited use on weekends.

Evan Williams, founder of Blogger and Twitter, said his two boys, instead of iPads, have hundreds of books they can read anytime. Mostly, children of the tech-moguls are allowed use of computers during week nights only for homework.

A universal rule among them is: there are no screens in the bedroom.

I imagine they mean televisions, computers and tablets.

As for early schooling, Google’s Alan Eagle says, "I reject the notion that you need technology aids in grammar schools."

In other words, while technology is an important tool in the modern world, we must not allow our children to become slaves of the digital devices they crave for Christmas.

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