You can’t stop the change, any more than you can stop the sun from setting.
Recently, a writer from this publication contacted me to get my opinion about the so-called ‘Blue Whale’ game (also known as the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’), a phenomenon alleged to be behind a rash of self-harming behaviours in adolescents. Her piece later appeared in this publication under the title ‘Something Fishy’ (http://tns.thenews.com.pk/blue-whale/).
Briefly, for those unfamiliar with the ‘game’, the ‘Blue Whale’ which first appeared in Russia and was allegedly developed by a 21 years old psychology student consists of a series of tasks over 50 days culminating in suicide. Since its first appearance in 2016, the ‘Blue Whale’ has been held responsible for dozens of incidents of self-injurious behaviour in adolescents all over the world including some actual suicides. Some have recently been reported in India and Pakistan (e.g. see https://www.dawn.com/news/1361016). So far, the phenomenon has not caught the attention of our moral brigades. However, if these incidents continue to happen in Pakistan, as they most likely will, the ‘Blue Whale’ will undoubtedly catch the attention of one of our religious divines prompting the usual lamentations about religious and moral decline and the dangers of the West in general and technology in particular. What is sure to get overlooked in this debate is what I had told the writer I mentioned earlier: periodic phenomenon like the ‘Blue Whale’ mask the larger issues facing our children and teens.
Even if one were to confine oneself just to computer technology (and forget, for the moment, teenage struggles with academics/grades, sexuality and the rising incidence of alcohol and substance abuse in our schools and colleges), the issue which completely dwarves things like the ‘Blue Whale’ is the huge negative impact computer technology continues to have on children and teenagers. Consider this: less than twenty years ago, it was unheard of for every home to have an average of 6-8 computer devices constantly connected the internet (this includes desktop computers, laptops, tablets/iPads, smartphones and smart TVs).
When my generation was growing up, we were forced to leave our homes to look for entertainment and play. Even in the searing heat of a Lahore summer when the adults would settle down for their afternoon naps, we would sneak outside to chase squirrels and kittens, play hide and seek, fly kites or play cricket. Most of the day outside school hours would be spent in physical play and hanging out with friends and neighbours.
Today, a child never has to leave his or her air-conditioned room. The internet has brought the outside world (or rather a modified virtual form of it) into their bed. It may not be exactly the same thing, but it is, in many cases, the only world the child has ever known. This has had two extremely harmful effects: the amount of physical activity that children indulged in has gone down drastically and, as a result, the incidence of childhood obesity has shot up. Soon enough this will result in the same obesity induced illnesses that are now plaguing children in the West: diabetes, heart disease and the rest. Along with this, there has been a sharp decline in children’s willingness and ability to engage socially with others.
It just seems easier to interact with a machine than with other humans who are, after all, unpredictable. In a couple of decades, we may be surrounded by adults who have no idea how to strike up a conversation with another human being except through a chat message or an ‘emoji’. This is not the time or place to cite research about the dangers of excessive ‘screen time’ for children which can lead to problems ranging from attention deficit to social anxiety to depression. Suffice to say that compared to the ‘screen addiction’ that most children are now subject to, the ‘Blue Whale’ is less than a blip on the radar.
Once this problem does begin to register at a larger level, there will inevitably be calls to ‘ban technology’ and return to ‘simpler times’. This course is doomed to failure. Calling for ban on computers because children use them too much is like trying to ban cars because someone dies in a car accident. It goes back to the age old question: is technology good or bad? The answer of course, is, neither. A car can be used to transport your sick child to the hospital or take yourself to work; it can also be used to run over innocent civilians in the pursuit of some ‘ideology’. A gun can be used to defend your home and also to rob a bank. A nuclear explosion can generate an unlimited amount of cheap electricity or to incinerate a city full of innocent people. Technology is just technology; how it is utilised is what matters.
In less than one generation, personal computers and internet have transformed the way we live and interact with the world. Instant communication across the globe is now the norm. Most information in the world is now accessible to anyone at the touch of a button and just in my own field of healthcare, computers have revolutionised how doctors and nurses work: from telemedicine which can provide healthcare across continents to e-learning which has made physical university campuses optional. Computers are now as ubiquitous and as essential as electricity was in a previous generation.
So what is the answer, specifically in relation to our children? The same as it has always been. While computers have given us new and wonderful ways to educate and enlighten our children, they can never replace good supervision and parenting. The solution to the smaller problem of the ‘Blue Whale’ and the larger issue of computer overuse is the same.
Parents have to take the time to interact with and supervise their children. Screen time should be limited to 1-2 hours a day or less. This is especially true for younger children. The latest research recommends *no* screens of any kind for children under age 6. This means no TVs, no Smartphones, no iPads or tablets, nothing at all. This will, of course, also mean that parents will have to lessen their own screen time. Perhaps less time on Facebook and Snapchat might be a good idea all around. And in the time that we free up by turning off our screens, perhaps we can actually learn to talk to each other again. In the end, what is useful to remember is that technology does not create itself. Humans created cars, computers and the internet. It is up to us to use technology safely and responsibly and to remind our children to do the same.