By Evelyn Kasina, Family IT Consultant and CEO of Eveminet Communication Solutions Ltd, Kenya
From the onset of the Coronavirus, there has been the unuttered and unmet request from our children, “We miss our friends, we want to connect with them and do fun things like we did before!” While the Coronavirus has denied our children the ability to go to school, play with their friends and do what they do best – be children, the virus has also exposed our inherent need as humans to stay physically connected with each other. As we all get accustomed to the “new normal” ways of connecting with our loved ones, Social media has become our closest ally with video calls offering a somewhat close to normal “face to face” experience for adults and children alike.
Video conferencing and Social media apps now enable virtual meetings, webinars, Live parties and groups that mobilize communities for a common good despite social distancing. Most learning has also gone virtual with schools using virtual lessons to stay up to date with the curriculum and keep children engaged. Apart from school work, children are also browsing the internet as part of their learning and social time. As the “new normal” becomes our new reality, children are spending more time online as they look for interactive ways to entertain and connect with their friends.
According to the latest report by Internetworldstats Q1 2020 March, internet penetration in Africa is rising with total penetration at 39%. The highest penetration is noted in Kenya with up to 87%, Libya at 74 % and Seychelles at 72%. Whereas these rising numbers show positive growth in the digital space, they also portend concern where there is unregulated use of the internet by young impressionable minds. It is inevitable that our children will be more exposed to online platforms than before and this has parents mulling over how much control they should exercise over their children’s interactions with social media.
With this in mind, mobile apps that aim at improving safety controls to children are welcome and useful to parents. The good news is that we’re increasingly seeing social media platforms taking an active lead in providing solutions. Recently Facebook launched the Facebook Messenger for Kids, a video chat and messaging app that helps children between the ages of 6 to 12 years connect with friends and family in a fun,parent-controlled space. The platform is fostering amazing and safe connections between children and parents. Through the apps Parent Dashboard, parents can control and monitor their children’s online activities.
It is great to note that the dashboard can monitor recent contacts, chat history, and see a log of images and videos in chats. The app also has some interesting features such as Supervised Friending that enables parents to choose to allow their kids to also accept, reject, add or remove contacts, while maintaining the ability to override any new contact approvals from the Parent Dashboard. Remote Devise Logout is a feature that allows parents to see all devices where their child is logged in to Messenger Kids and log out of the app on any device through the Parent Dashboard. The app also enables parents to download the child’s information as a way of staying up to date with their online activities.
As a Digital Literacy Online and Safety practitioner, I loved the fact that Messenger Kids provides a safe space for parents to learn about social media whilst coaching their children on how to handle their information and connect with their friends and family. When I raved about the app to some of my close friends they initially expressed general concerns about social media citing explicit content, online predators, excessive screen time and online addiction. I know that being a Parent isn’t easy and that most parents have tonnes oof questions about Social Media and when to introduce their children to it. I advise parents who are considering Messenger Kids and other kid-friendly apps to have conversations about Social media with their children- they may be surprised just how much their kids know!
Rather than shying away from addressing topics like stalking and bullying, parents should lean onto these conversations encouraging children to respect each other and their diversity and flagging any bullying or harassment that they face on social media or in school. For parents who wish to introduce Messenger Kids to their children, it’s also noteworthy to highlight that the app allows parents and guardians to manage screen time by applying a sleep mode feature that limits the amount of time spent online.
Ultimately, Messenger Kids is a technological advancement and in my view a great tool that parents can use to promote digital literacy and encourage online safety. Parents can also use the app as a conduit to discuss social media with their children from an early age. In this digital age, I believe that African parents can also use the app to foster connections for their children while encouraging them to share educational content about their diversity and culture. The Messenger Kids app can be used as an educational platform where children can collaborate with their teachers.
Creating digital citizens is a task that falls on parents, guardians and educators so we have to strive to equip our children with reasonable independence by modelling it to them.