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Understanding Our Kids Online: An Empathetic Approach

TECHNOLOGYUnderstanding Our Kids Online: An Empathetic Approach

We live in a world that is neither entirely virtual nor entirely real. It is a dynamically changing hybrid, in which digital space becomes a natural extension of everyday life. In the digital age, where every click and swipe on a smartphone screen raises concern, especially among parents and caregivers, the key question becomes: why is it so important to know what young people are doing online? On how and why it is worthwhile, in the context of using technology, to build understanding between generations, says Dr. Karol Jachymek, a cultural expert and media scholar at SWPS University.

Should we fear each moment that children and adolescents spend online, or is it time to change our approach and look at the internet through the prism of possibilities it offers? Instead of concentrating solely on potential threats, it is important to foster intergenerational dialogue based on mutual respect and understanding. The expert in intergenerational communication encourages an empathic approach to the digital world of youth. Technology is not an enemy, but a tool that – used correctly – can enrich our lives with new possibilities. It is important not to get lost in the anxiety that accompanies the emergence of new technologies, but to look at the digital world through the eyes of those for whom it is a natural environment for development and exploration. Only then will we be able to jointly shape the future in which technology serves the common good, without threatening our well-being.

“Young people must learn to competently use technology, even as we implement or consider implementing various kinds of bans. Instead of focusing solely on potential negatives, it’s worthwhile to consider how technology can support young people’s development, facilitate their learning, creativity, and maintaining relationships,” says Dr. Karol Jachymek.

Why is the first reaction to new technology often negative?

This question opens the field for discussion about our approach to digital novelties. Each new technology, whether we talk about social media, artificial intelligence, or books, which attracts the attention of society, is likely to cause fear or even panic. As Amy Orben notes in the article “The Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panic”,[1] these reactions cyclically intensify and subside as new technologies emerge, especially those used by young people. The concept of technological panic sheds light on our tendency to focus particularly on the negative effects of digital innovation. Instead of yielding to impulsive reactions and basing education policies or home rules on them entirely, we should strive to understand the changes that technology introduces into our lives.

“Imagine a straightforward situation: we’re watching our child spend an hour with their nose in a smartphone. Our minds are filled with arguments about the harmfulness of these devices, sitting immobile, etc., which make it hard for us to focus on anything other than the sight of our child looking at a smartphone. However, if we look at this situation from a greater distance, we might allow the thought that during this time, the child can be doing many different things – for example, meeting with friends, doing homework or scrolling through TikTok. What’s more, scrolling social media might be very necessary for them at that moment because they had a stressful test at school and want to relax this way. Of course, staring at a screen can be related to problematic use of technology, with our child behaviorally addicted to using a smartphone. But it doesn’t have to be related at all. Nevertheless, our first instinct is to think that this is a waste of time, addiction, or eye damage.” – explains Dr. Karol Jachymek

A huge problem in talking about technologies is assuming that they affect everyone equally and in the same circumstances. This is a big trap that sometimes science, education, or popularizing activities regarding digital media in young people’s lives fall into.

Focusing on generational differences, we ourselves create communication barriers that push us away from younger internet users, rather than bringing us closer. The reality in which older generations can learn from the younger ones is still a distant ideal. Meanwhile, as Dr. Karol Jachymek points out, focusing on the negative aspects of technology use can unnecessarily increase the generational gap, rather than building understanding.

What do young people find on the internet?

There is a tendency in social discourse to perceive new media through the lens of threats, which obscures the image and obscures the positive aspects of their use. The report “Positive Internet and Its Young Creators – Good and Bad News from Qualitative Research”[2] sheds light on this issue, emphasizing that the digital world is not only an area of threats but also a space of countless possibilities. Young people find a place for creative self-expression there, gaining knowledge and skills necessary for a future career, or for psychological and emotional support.

“The Internet is also a place of relaxation, meetings with friends, or simply – a diversion from everyday life. This positive side of the digital universe often goes unnoticed, lost among alarmist reports about addictions or cyberbullying,” – emphasizes Dr. Karol Jachymek

Why do we need knowledge about young people’s activities online?

Any initiatives aimed at limiting young people’s access to technology, although they result from care, can also cause a lot of harm. As the expert notes, the key to building healthy relationships with technology is cooperation and a participatory approach, not imposing bans alone. Children and adolescents, to become competent users of modern technologies, must have the opportunity to learn and experiment in a safe environment. This, in turn, requires us, adults, to be open to dialogue and willing to search for solutions together. Dr. Jachymek encourages an empathic understanding of the internet, which would not mean that we fully accept what we or young people do there. This approach assumes an attempt to understand what is happening on the network, why it is being done, and in what context, because these are usually very complex things. Instead of creating technology as the sole culprit for contemporary problems of youth, it is worth looking at the real needs and challenges facing the younger generation using the Internet.

Dr. Karol Jachymek writes about this in his new book “With the nose in the smartphone. What our children are doing on the Internet and whether we really should worry about it?”[3] The expert presents the advantages of an empathic approach to the use of technology by young people and emphasizes that the book is not a story about technology, but about communication, relationships, and the ability to be together online and offline.

[1] Orben A.,The Sisyphean cycle of technology panics, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2020
[2] Pyżalski J. (ed.) (2019). Internet and its young creators – good and bad news from qualitative research, Warsaw: NASK.
[3] Jachymek K., With the nose in the smartphone. What our children are doing on the internet and whether we really should worry about it?, 2024, Agora Publishing.

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