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Child Development and Technology: Friends or Enemies?

The phenomenal impact that emergent technology has had upon family life in the last twenty years is nowhere more powerful or poignant than for those children who are placed in foster care.  

It is widely cited that there has been a breakdown in so-called "traditional" family values and lifestyle in the wake of increasingly computerized communications. Texting, Facebook messaging, Skype and even Snapchatting have taken over from actual face-to-face and direct conversation. A study by the Kaiser Foundation in 2010 found that primary school kids had on average 7.5 hours of entertainment technology per day. If you consider that they get up and go to school then come home at perhaps 3.30 or 4pm, it essentially translates as a generation of youngsters who are wired to the internet for the majority of their free time. Gone are the days when they would be outside, playing, climbing trees, getting into scrapes and coming home for dinner. Childhood has changed, radically and almost without us even realizing it. Parents rationalize that they want their child to have a mobile phone for emergencies, but the new smartphones, not to mention the iPads, the video games and the TVs in their rooms, mean that most young people are technologically tied. They are no longer free spirits, left to their own devices, to daydream, to dawdle, to develop. They are wired, 24/7. Whilst this raises issues such as increased obesity, developmental delays and attention deficit, it poses more pressing emotional questions for those children already at risk in other ways.  

The impact on foster children 

Those who work in fostering in the UK have witnessed quite alarming consequences. Vulnerable children are increasingly at risk of being contacted by birth parents through all manner of media. A request to become a Facebook friend may seem harmless in itself, but not if the request is made by the child and rejected by the parent. Care plans cannot take into consideration such factors as unexpected texts or contact, which is quite literally in the child's hands. Foster carers can screen and monitor supervised visits but they are not able to access a child's phone without seeming to violate their privacy. 

Delicate Balancing Act 

With the rise of social networking, how far should those who work in fostering in the UK go towards monitoring the usage of their charges without squandering their trust? A manipulative birth parent may be jeopardizing their child's progress by provoking an unseen, unsupervised dialogue, even if it is simply by email. With the child's social status dependant on having access to their internet devices they may be more inclined to keep such issues secret, even if they are troubling them. On the plus side, it can also be beneficial to stay in touch with key persons in the previous environment. Siblings, or perhaps a favourite former teacher, a sports coach or a family friend. It is very difficult to know where to draw the line.  

Eventually, the hope is that a happy medium will be struck between the benefits and the downsides of technology, such as the construction of online diaries, but there is some way to go before this fine line is delineated. 



Photo credit: Karin Dalziel 
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