80% of Singaporean Children Under 7 Are Already On The Internet. Should We Be Worried?

Top image by Lydia Tan.
The first computer my family bought boasted a CPU that was thicc. It had a Pentium II chip and came with Windows 95, which the boxy monitor displayed in all its 640x480p glory.
At 6, I didn’t understand any of that; I didn’t even know how to switch on the computer. All my tiny brain could process was that the wired mouse came with a heavy, perfectly smooth ball at its bottom, which I liked to take out and throw at my sister.
At 5, my niece complains if she cannot find an available Wi-Fi network to connect to.
As the geeky uncle, I’m proud of her facility with technology. At the same time, I can’t help but worry for her. Horror stories about technology circulate around my friends and family: the friend of a friend who discovered that a malware had turned on her webcam permanently, the auntie’s daughter who cried because her Instagram photo only had 3 likes, the handsome boy who got catfished on a dating app and thankfully found out before things went any further (me) …
Old people like me merely adopted technology, and are already so vulnerable to it. What about the generation, like my niece, who is born in it, moulded by it- and exposed, from a young age, to all the dangers of it? How are children adopting digital and media literacy in schools even as they deftly navigate touchscreens like little wizards?
First, a quick explanation of what “media literacy” is. According to Patricia Aufderheide, the leading scholar on media studies, media literacy is the capacity to “decode, evaluate, analyse … both print and electronic media”.
To put it simply, media-literate people understand that all sources of media have inherent biases and agendas. Therefore, such people know the importance of thinking critically and cross-referencing against other sources whatever information they come across, whether it’s on an online media platform or something more traditional like television or newspapers
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(In Singapore, “media literacy” includes the abilities not only to curate digital information, but also to create content -but more on the latter later.)
According to Info-communications Media Development Authority’s (IMDA) Annual Survey on Infocomm Usage in Households and by Individuals for 2019, 100% of households with school-going children have access to the internet. Somewhat shockingly (to me at least), in 2019, 80% of children younger than 7 years old (!) are already on the internet, a rise of 27% compared to 2017.
Moreover, with the ubiquity of wireless networks and portable devices, children can now use smartphones to go on the internet wherever they are-at the playground, in the library, or even while queuing to buy lunch, places far from the watchful eye of their parents.
Indeed, the same survey found that, in 2019, 93% of children aged 7 to 14 use a smartphone to access the internet. That’s because the average age a Singapore child gets their first smartphone is 8, a whole 2 years before their international peers.
If we expand the criterion to include other internet-enabled portable devices like tablets, the percentage rises to 100%. That is to say, all children of that age use portable devices to access the internet.
More worryingly, the main use of the internet for children in that age group is instant messaging, followed by watching videos and viewing images, and general web browsing. These are activities that can easily be used for malicious purposes, especially for children at so vulnerable an age.
Our schools are, of course, aware of this vulnerability. That’s why media literacy receives such emphasis within their walls. As part of a National Digital Literacy Programme designed by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to ensure students can navigate the digital world safely and confidently, each school, from primary to tertiary, designs and runs its own cyber wellness curriculum.
For example, in School of the Arts, responsible use, and critical analysis, of digital and social media are woven into their main curriculum on design, photography, and film-making. Similarly, Sembawang Secondary School runs an Applied Learning Programme that teaches students media recepti…