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Ljubljana is leading the way in tackling children’s ‘online addiction’

Tackling ‘online addiction’ amongst children and adolescents is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges facing child professionals the world over. Early years expert Melita Oven, who will be speaking at the Child in the City World Conference from September 24-26, has played a central role in the outstanding intervention work being done in Slovenia’s capital city.

The city issues public tenders every year for the implementation of addiction prevention programs, including a focus on online violence, and the safe and responsible use of the internet by young people. In this extended feature, Melita, who is Head of Project Section in the Pre-School Education and Schooling Department, tells CiTC about how the city has gone about tackling some of the major barriers and how it works with young people, families, partners and stakeholders.

CITC: The online world – is it more a ‘friend or foe’ for children and young people, and how do we balance the two?

Melita: “Despite universal acknowledgement of digital benefits, we are seemingly unable or unwilling to fully embrace it, due to the skills gap being a key factor. A lack of IT skills already holds back digital transformation, especially with children and young people. With sustained technological advancement and inadequate training, this gap will only widen, prompting the question: what skills and attributes will children need to compete in this digital workplace, to create an innovative 21st century economy? The answer lies in education.

‘An innovation economy beyond IT’

“As technological progress becomes less and less tangible, we need to provide more and more relevant education. STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) curriculums, long the standard of advanced education, must become STREAMD – science, technology, robotics, engineering, arts, and maths & design. This breadth and depth of training reflects the development of an innovation economy beyond IT, with a growing emphasis on design and experience skills, systems and computational thinking, digital economics, sociology, behavioural economics and advanced mathematics.

“It won’t be enough to teach an expanded curriculum to a narrow population. We’ll need to fuel a more diverse pipeline of talent, inclusive of women and other underrepresented groups in technology, to better reflect the world we serve.”

Please describe the city of Ljubljana’s preventative approach to tackling the challenges faced by children in the digital era. What was the catalyst for this?

“Preventive actions in the field of addiction prevention in Ljubljana are based on the Quality Standards for Drugs Preventive Programs, adopted by the National Institute of Public Health in 2016. In order to recognise addiction, it is very important to be aware of both risk and, on the other hand, protective factors. They are often difficult to distinguish because they are very intertwined and interdependent. Our efforts are put into promoting universal prevention programs in its broadest sense – for whole groups and classes of children and adolescents, for teachers and parents of the entire kindergarden or school.

Peer help and mediation

“For this reason, we select and finance programs aimed at raising children’s social competences of children. These include techniques and strategies for the prevention of non-chemical and/or chemical addiction, the development of peer help and mediation, prevention and/or control of violence, plus strategies for preventing violence in online forums and/or mobile intimidation, safe and responsible internet use, computer games and mobile telephony, learning techniques and strategies, problem-solving and learning techniques for controlling anger.

“For the period 2011-2020, the Ministry of Health prepared a National Drugs Program. This defines prevention in education, which must be embedded in the entire educational concept of schools, and follow the preservation of abstinence of the individual and the prevention of unwanted behaviour among children and adolescents. A school can act preventively if it succeeds in forming a responsible individual. The national program also emphasises the need for additional education of pedagogical and non-pedagogical workers in kindergardens, schools, along with parents and support for the development of peer education. Therefore, in Ljubljana, we follow these guidelines and provide for the preventive programs at a local level.”

What are the main challenges in ensuring that policies towards children are ‘all inclusive’ and do not marginalise the hard-to-reach children?

“Preventive programs in kindergardens and elementary schools are mainly intended for whole groups – pre-school and primary school – so all children are included. We also offer targeted programs designed for children and adolescents who face problems that could lead to the development of addiction. The programs are professionally set up so as not to cause stigmatisation and marginalisation.”

Preventive programs

What is key to ensuring that the city works with all relevant stakeholders to deliver a successful prevention program?

“The city of Ljubljana has a preventive policy in the field of addiction. We are connected to all relevant stakeholders: kindergardens, schools, state institutions such as the Ministry of Health and National Institute of Public Health, and providers of numerous programs. In order to ensure the implementation of preventive programs, we select and co-finance the best preventive programs through the public tender every year. The contents of the call for tenders are adapted each year to new needs and expert findings in this field.”

Do we, as a society, really take the time to listen to children to fully understand and appreciate their concerns about living in a digital world?

“The internet is an increasing part of today’s culture, especially for children and youth, for whom schoolwork, online gaming, and social networking are among the most popular activities. However, the lack of common agreement about the right approach to educating and protecting children adds further challenges to a child’s online experience and expression. Cultural and geographical differences in legal and social norms also reflect the fact there is no universally accepted view of what defines a person as a child, or of what is appropriate for children. This makes ‘inappropriate content and behaviour’ hard to define.

Filtering techniques

“While some online crimes are cross-border in nature and require global attention, at a national policy approaches to regulating content have so far predominantly employed a range of filtering techniques to limit access to or block internet content. In addition, while local institutional or individual parental computer level filtering is often advised (and should, principally, be used in preference to network level filtering), neither these efforts nor national and local level filtering methods are 100 per cent effective at regulating undesirable content, as at times they tend to under- or over-block content. It is therefore vital for parents, educators, guardians, peers and the state to educate children and young people on risks and responsibilities they may encounter when using the internet.

“This approach could empower the youth to recognise and avoid dangers, while equipping them with online literacy skills to responsibly reap the benefits Internet activity offers.”

How important is it to work with the parents and guardians of young people?

“Children need an excellent start in early learning if they are able to cope with mid to late 21st century challenges. The family’s role is essential in nurturing and enriching young children’s development. Any early childhood education and care system that ignores this reality will not be able to optimise children’s potential.

Stronger support for families

“Most early childhood education and care systems make less provision and funding for children under the age of three because their care and education is very expensive. However, it is precisely these years when the family’s influence is the greatest. Future early childhood education and care systems should provide stronger support for local families with younger children. There is no reason some of this support cannot be offered through digital technologies, streamed directly into the home, which help parents learn about the power of early child rearing, and sensitive, responsive care and appropriate interactions.

“In such a system, early childhood education and care staff can offer more support to families living in challenging circumstances.”

Are there any particular areas, for example, social media or cyberbullying, which represent the biggest challenge and therefore the most resources?

“The first phase of the educational program should not only be focused on social media and cyberbullying, but focusing to develop eight digital skills that we must teach our children aged 8-12. They are: Privacy management, critical thinking, digital footprints, digital empathy, cyber security management, cyberbullying management, screen time management and digital citizen identity.

‘First steps on a lifelong journey’

“There is an urgent need to prepare them for the digital world when they actively start engaging in digital media and devices. This age is a critical time when children typically become active on social media and are exposed to cyber risks. Children at this age are also vulnerable as they begin to seek social inclusion. They are at the crucial stage of starting to figure out their sense of right and wrong, taking their first steps on a lifelong journey to build their sense of identity and discernment.

“We believe children need to develop a kind of  ‘digital intelligence’. This should be a combination of technical, mental and social competencies essential to digital life. It should encompass the knowledge,  skills, attitudes and values that are needed to thrive as responsible members of the online world, and to be confident in handling the challenges and demands of the digital era. These abilities are rooted in the human values of integrity, respect and empathy.”

Can you identify one or two examples of how the digital prevention programs have made a difference to someone’s life? How do you ‘measure’ a successful intervention?

“Children and adolescents attending ‘safe internet’ programs say they have gained a different insight into the digital world. They’ve also learned vital new skills: prudent handling of their personal data, differentiating between genuine and false, good and harmful internet content, managing their own screen time, identifying and detecting various forms of online violence, digital empathy (the ability to build good relationships also through digital media), and finally the distinction between the digital and the real world.

Attitudes and behaviour

“Our best preventive programs in elementary schools start in the 1st grade (first year of primary school) and are gradually upgraded. The attitudes and behaviour of children are checked at the start of each program. These are then checked again at the end of the implementation of the three-year program. In our opinion, an intervention is successful when we have influenced the views of individual participants in the program.”

What would you say are the biggest challenges in addressing addiction issues related solely to online activity?

“The world is beginning to see problems with an over-reliance on the internet. Texting, emailing, social media, and search engines are becoming more important in the daily lives of all citizens. And while most people can easily unplug themselves from the internet and spend quality time with friends and family members in person, some people experience tremendous anxiety when they are forced to be without their phones, computers, or tablets.

Signs and symptoms

“So, what is internet addiction? Signs and symptoms vary from one person to the next, so researchers cannot give an exact number of hours per day or a total number of messages sent or games played that would indicate a person is addicted to the internet. Since the aspects of the internet where people are spending the greatest amount of time online have to do with social interactions, it would appear that socialisation is what makes the internet so addictive. That’s right – plain old hanging out with other people and talking with them.

“Whether it’s via e-mail, a discussion forum, chat, or a game online, people are spending this time exchanging information, support, and chit-chat with other like-minded people. Would we ever characterise any time spent in the real world with friends as ‘addicting?’ Of course not. Teenagers talk on the phone for hours on end with people they see every day! Do we say they are addicted to the telephone? Of course not. People lose hours at a time, immersed in a book, ignoring friends and family, and often not even picking up the phone when it rings. Do we say they are addicted to the book? Of course not. So again, what is internet addiction?

Defining online addiction

“Maybe time spent online is the criterion? Time alone cannot be an indicator of being addicted or engaging in compulsive behaviour. Time must be taken in context with other factors, such as whether you’re a college student (who, proportionally, spend a greater amount of time online), whether it’s a part of your job or whether you have any pre-existing conditions. This could mean another mental disorder; a person with depression is more likely to spend more time online than someone who doesn’t, for instance, often in a virtual support group environment. You may also have problems or issues in your life which may be causing you to spend more time online (e.g. to ‘get away’ from life’s problems, a bad marriage, difficult social relations, and so forth). So talking about whether you spend too much time online without this important context is useless. We believe the biggest challenge for science is to define what online addiction is!”

In your opinion, how best can events like Child in the City World Conference make a tangible difference to future planning in terms of children’s rights?

“The exchange of good practices in the field of children’s rights can contribute to the expansion of these practices into environments where they do not have them yet. By doing so, we provide a greater number of children with the right to grow up in a safe environment and with the right to information and knowledge.”

If there was one key message that you would like delegates to take away from your presentation, what would it be?

“Education is cheaper than ignoring!”

Melita Oven is due to speak on day two of the Child in the City World Conference 2018, Tuesday September 25, as part of the ‘Media Literacy’ parallel session.

For details on how to register to attend the conference, visit the website.

Author: Simon Weedy

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