How many parents really know what their children are exposed to on the internet? We’re familiar with the many dangers lurking there: exposure to harmful content, bullying, communication with strangers, sexual exploitation, pornography, identity theft and fraud.
Most parents don’t want to go snooping through their kids’ phones and computers, but even if they did, they can’t supervise their children all the time, and the dangers are too sophisticated for ordinary people to deal with. The usual solution for parents is to rely on parental control technologies – various kinds of software that filters and blocks content or follows kids’ internet habits without their knowledge.
But if you ask Israeli tech incubator manager and investor Dr. Uri Weinheber, whose book “Techno.human” was recently published in Israel by Resling Books, parents depend on technology to do much more than it’s really intended to do, and making them actually neglect an important part of their children’s upbringing.
“We’ve had a relationship with technology for many years,” Weinheber tells Haaretz in a telephone interview. “You might say that information technologies are largely human beings’ best friends, but this friendship is changing.” According to Weinheber, the more the years go by, the closer we get to technology and the more we grant it access to ourselves. “Technology is annexing more and more human characteristics,” he explains. “Our rationale says, ‘Let’s do it, let’s give technology our intelligence abilities.’ And there are artificial imitations, technologies, of the way people think. The problem is that in this process, we’re also shrugging off part of our responsibilities and passing it on to technology.” This, he says, has become especially problematic when it comes to parenting.
Weinheber is no Luddite. He has a Ph.D. in technology and society and lectures about and researches the interaction between humans and technology. As a tech incubator manager, he won three Economy Ministry awards for the best incubator in Israel. “The health crisis now will apparently be solved by technology,” he says, stressing that technology’s role in our lives is far from demonic. “But we get confused and tend to ascribe it more abilities than it has.”
What does this mean exactly? “How many of us really know what this [parental control] technology stops and what it doesn’t? I recently spoke to a parent who said he was very happy that there’s technology that blocks content. I told him, ‘Great, what does it block and what doesn’t it? What do you know about the home Wi-Fi [filtering] criteria?’ What do we know about the software settings, or the company which we bought the Wi-Fi router from? We give our parental steering wheel to a certain company, and from that moment forward, we hardly ask or check its decisions.”
While in the past, content control was done by software installed on the computer, today technological monitoring is done on the Wi-Fi level, and on the entire web, Weinheber explains. “There are routers that report when a child comes home, because the Wi-Fi knows when a certain telephone comes in the house, or whether one of the phones in the house is being used at 3 A.M. Feedback software, the school system that communicates with parents over the children’s heads, is also a monitoring system.”
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In his book, Weinheber explains that we are taking part in the process of transitioning responsibility from society to a company – a neo-liberal move that privatizes responsibility from the sovereign to the powers of the marketplace: from parent to software. “This is a convenient solution that can be calibrated, which assumes that technology has social skills and not just an impact on society,” he writes.
But technology is still limited, and sometimes using it for defensive purposes won’t resolve the deep and complex conflicts that come up when browsing the web, and can even create new dangers that most parents aren’t aware of (like exposure to personal details about children, for example). But worst of all, Weinheber says, we’re losing part of our parental involvement while deluding ourselves into thinking that it’s being done for us.
The truth is that there’s no substitute for parenting. “Although there is a technological component in this sphere, parental involvement must not decline,” he says. “As a parent, I must take a stand and decide.”
Weinheber is not a parenting expert. He is a father of four who is preoccupied by the seam between society and technology – both in his professional and his personal life. “Humanity is allowing technology to participate in the social fabric,” he says. “The world is becoming full of technological censors. Of course we remember the first stories about cameras in homes and day care centers. But since then, it has developed in a lot of other directions. There are bracelets that tell parents exactly where their children are. There are modern cars with features that tell parents when their child is driving the car, how fast, and whether they are breaking any traffic laws.”
Ostensibly, technology increases parental involvement: It allows us to supervise our children constantly and efficiently. But Weinheber says this is an illusion. “The system inserts itself into the intimacy I share with my child, and decides for him what he does and doesn’t tell me. In that respect, technology disrupts my parenting. In addition, the more the monitoring moves away from me and the limitations I set on my children, the more I lose control of the relationship with my children. I’m less involved.”
Some say that when parents allow technology to supervise their children in their stead, they avoid invading their children’s privacy. But according to Weinheber, “That’s the beginning of a process at the end of which you as a parent lose your hold on the content the children are exposed to. In the end, technology is a masking medium. It hides the problems and the questions from us, its mediation distances us, the parents, from our children and leads to us making compromises in our worldview.”
“Young people share information that they will sometimes regret sharing as adults,” he adds. “When you sit in front of a screen and type, you don’t feel the [gravity of the] situation in full, so sometimes people allow themselves to share information and express themselves in a certain way that if it weren’t digital, they would have behaved differently.”
And that, Weinheber says, is the kind of thing that parents should teach their own children: What pictures to post on the web and why, what details to share, what information online is reliable and what isn’t – what are the criteria? Answering all these questions and more is our responsibility as parents.
The popular Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” is about the impact of social networks on young people and depicts how social media enslaves its users. But Weinheber says it misses a few essential issues. One of these is the gradual loss of humanity. “The more dominant the technological tools become, the more human roles technology takes on itself,” he explains. “For example, when social media encourages you to send a birthday greeting – we shed another part of our humanity and become less individual and more data on the web. Steve Case, CEO of America Online, said as far back as 1997 that technology is no replacement for good parenting, and I say technology is certainly no replacement for involved parenting.”
Weinheber’s approach is that we can’t rely only on technology to protect us and our children as we navigate the digital world. “Technology is only one too. Add to it the regulator, the law, which helps us stand up to the big companies, and also education and awareness. Without education, understanding and awareness, it’s difficult to develop the ability to cope fully as a society and a family. There will always be new digital challenges, situations to which solutions haven’t been found yet, and meeting the challenge will have to be based on our educational position as parents and a way of educating toward independence in the face of the digital world. Just as we give our children a set of tools when they go out into the physical world, we must outfit them with tools for the digital world.”
The regulator, Weinheber explains in his book, will always lag a little behind technological processes. It will discover new situations and slowly stop up holes in the walls of the digital world. That’s why its actions must be backed up by technological and educational means. “Children need to be educated to spend time in a place that isn’t clean,” he says. “The web is a chaotic place. We see that it’s taking on various forms and content and there are various actors and we’ll never be in a position of having a technological and regulatory answer for every threat. And so the right way is to develop inner strength, the internal ability of boys and girls to deal with these situations.”
There’s no essential difference between the digital world and the physical world in terms of our responsibility as parents. Just as we make sure to talk to our children about healthy and safe sexuality in the real world, we have to talk to them about this and other issues as they manifest themselves in the digital world.
“In the end,” says Weinheber, “there’s no difference between my values in the digital world and the real world. My ability as a parent to know that my children are safe in meeting digital challenges stems from the fact that I’m involved, that I was there next to them and I gave them the skills, values and worldviews. That allow them to cope with dangers and threats, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s in the digital world or the real world.”