Nothing on the internet is for free. Accessing websites using an internet browser will often lead to a cookie (small piece of data sent from the website to the user’s computer via the browser) being stored on the user’s computer to compile long-term records of an individual’s browsing history. This is very powerful information to advertising companies who can then bombard young people with adverts at a young age while knowing their likes and interests via their browsing history.
More sinister than this is the way sexual and ideological predators can target young people who use instant messaging and chat rooms without appropriate privacy settings. App developers often purposely make the privacy settings and GPS location settings inconsistent, with each app having a different way of setting the profile to private not public, and switching off the GPS location settings. When this is combined with a care-free young person with a diminished sense of risk posting their full name, photos, mobile phone number, home address and favourite hangouts, the sexual and ideological predator has the most complete profile possible to exploit the young, naïve and vulnerable person.
The march of technology
The march of technology is relentless and a sensible approach is to manage the risks which come with that technology instead of trying to ban it completely. Blanket bans with technology rarely work and you only have to look back at the advent of television and smartphones to remember that while some Islamic scholars ruled their use impermissible due to the obvious risks, the technology embedded itself into our culture to the extent that their use became almost unavoidable. Think back to just 20 years ago when internet access required a modem, a telephone line and a PC with the user expectantly staring at a screen waiting for the dial-in dialogue box to connect. Who would have thought that within a few years that same internet access would be available without any in-built restrictions to a child in the palm of their hands?
Parenting principles from the Prophets (ʿalayhim al-Salām)
The Qur’ān is the blue-print for guidance in every aspect of our lives. We may claim to adhere to this ideal but how many of us actualise this principle when it comes to the most important aspects of our lives such as relationships.
Consider the opening verses of Sūrah Yūsuf where we see the most marvellous parent-child relationship unfold between a Prophet and a future Prophet (ʿalayhimā al-Salām).
[Of these stories mention] when Joseph said to his father, “O my father, indeed I have seen [in a dream] eleven stars and the sun and the moon; I saw them prostrating to me.”
He said, “O my son, do not relate your vision to your brothers or they will contrive against you a plan. Indeed Satan, to man, is a manifest enemy.
And thus will your Lord choose you and teach you the interpretation of narratives and complete His favour upon you and upon the family of Jacob, as He completed it upon your fathers before, Abraham and Isaac. Indeed, your Lord is Knowing and Wise.”
The young Prophet addresses his father in the most endearing terms while the significantly older father reciprocates this love and respect. Do we have relationships with our children based on love and respect? Do our children feel at ease with us to the extent that they can approach us and talk to us with that which concerns them and distresses them? Yūsuf (ʿalayhi al-Salām) confides in his father a matter which he knows to be significant while at the same time appears to cause him some distress. This is evident from the fact that he repeats the verb ‘I have seen’ twice while relaying his dream. His father listens carefully to him and does not dismiss him. Yaʿqūb (ʿalayhi al-Salām) is a Prophet and the forefather of a nation but he still makes the time to listen to the descriptions of the dream of his young son. They have developed such a strong bond that when the brothers seek to take Yūsuf away for recreation, Yaʿqūb (ʿalayhi al-Salām) objects on account of the distress caused to him when Yūsuf is taken away from him. How many of us have invested time with our children to develop this strong bond?
Upon hearing the dream, Yaʿqūb (ʿalayhi al-Salām) is aware that it signifies the glad tidings of greatness for Yūsuf (ʿalayhi al-Salām) but his first priority is to warn Yūsuf (ʿalayhi al-Salām) against the potential jealousy-fuelled plotting of his brothers. As parents it our responsibility to anticipate and warn our children of potential risks. When it comes to the risks of the cyber world, ignorance is simply not an excuse. Knowledge is power, so parents need to engage in a frank and open dialogue with their children about their use of devices, the apps they use, the kind of communications they have and the potential risks.
Finally, Yaʿqūb (ʿalayhi al-Salām) empowers his son with a vision of greatness. He does not leave him paralysed with fear over the plotting of his brothers but reassures him that he will be selected by His Lord as a Prophet and taught the interpretation of dreams. It is our responsibility to impart to our children a vision that inspires them towards greatness in religion and gives them self-confidence and belief, based on their talents and abilities. A vision that reaches beyond the short-term fix of the number of likes on a social media platform.
Guidelines for Parents
- Lead by example. If you want your child to restrict their use of devices then ensure you do the same. Have ‘sacred’, quality family time such as meal times, and family circle times for studying the Qur’ān when all devices are out of bounds including your own.
- Hand in devices at bed-time. Sleep time should be a time when all electronic communications come to an end. The Wi-fi can be switched off and all devices should be handed in to ensure a good night’s rest. It is more important to wake up for qiyām ul-layl (night prayer) and Fajr in congregation than answer messages.
- Have a work room. Where possible, children should not be in the habit of using devices secluded in their own rooms. Laptop, smartphones and tablets should be used in a study room and the child’s bedroom should be a place for rest and getting ready. Psychologically it is not good for children to be using the same space for sleep and study. It is likely to lead to a lack of mental alertness and drowsiness while studying.
- Consider carefully what age to give a child a smartphone . A smartphone is the most powerful and addictive of tools as can be seen by the number of men who reach for their pockets after a congregational prayer. Experts speak of the young brain not maturing until the mid-20s. Have an open and frank conversation with your child about what is the right age for them to own a smartphone. If not the mid-20s, then certainly mid to late teens when the child has a clearer awareness of risk.
- GPS location settings and privacy settings.Location settings need to be off in any app and the profile needs to be set to private not public. This is an essential non-negotiable part of safeguarding your child.
- Parental filters and monitoring software. Parental filters are useful when blocking unsuitable content but bear in mind that some filters can block valuable Islamic content. Monitoring software can be useful when logging the amount of online activity and the websites and apps being used in your home. Bear in mind that this needs to be done in consultation with your child and their awareness. The aim is not to ‘catch them out’ but have an agreed set of parameters that everybody in the family sticks to.
- Do nothing online that you would not do in person!This applies as much to adults as children! It is strange to find mature sisters who take great care when concealing their beauty with the hijāb but possessing no inhibitions about revealing profile pictures to their entire address book.
The art of parenting
It is attributed to ʿAlī (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) that he said ‘your children were born of a different era’. You cannot assume that through a natural process of osmosis they will soak up your values and cultural norms. Your children will make mistakes that embarrass and enrage you. It is important to remember at these times to be moderate and proportionate in your sanctions. The art of parenting is that your children should always perceive you as a parent who has more power than you actually have. If you overreact at the slightest provocation, then what will you do as a parent when they really do something serious? Having used every sanction in your armoury, your children will quickly realise that they have the upper hand.
It is the hallmark of all the Prophets mentioned in the Qur’ān whose parenting is depicted to make profuse duʿā’ for their children. The forefather of the Prophets, the Prophet Ibrāhīm (ʿalayhi al-Salām) is the role model for this. He, alone, makes approximately 12 duʿā’s for the religious welfare of his progeny in the Qur’ān. Duʿā’ is the recognition that regardless of what a parent does to safeguard their children, success is ultimately in the hands of Allāh and upon Him alone we place our trust:
And those who say, “Our Lord, grant us from among our wives and offspring comfort to our eyes and make us an example for the righteous.”