Parenting In The Digital Age | Challenges And Opportunities

Digital technologies have been woven into the fabric of daily life for children and teens, presenting opportunities and challenges for parents. While a growing body of research has found that the use of technology has enhanced the education and learning experiences of young people, parents often lose sight of the benefits when they are struggling to manage the devices in the home.

The use of technology for education and entertainment by young people poses new challenges for parents as a one size fits all approach to risk minimisation and protecting children online doesn’t exist.

Some of the research that focuses on the impact of digital media on children provides evidence that there are negative health and well being issues such as sleep deprivation, obesity and anxiety that need to be considered as well as the benefits to learning; finding the balance is key.

In reality, the best course will necessarily vary from family to family, and be dependent on their access, ages and family values

Teaching And Modelling A Healthy Relationship With Technology

One of the best ways to enjoy the benefits of technology in moderation is to model a healthy relationship with it. While it can be impractical to create device-related rules that apply to all family members, core values such as media free meals can make a big impact. It’s important to find a balance between online and offline activity.  As noted by Susan Stifleman, author and family therapist, “While it’s true that our 15-year-old may roll her eyes at us if we suggest a game of Monopoly, I can’t count the number of times that kids have privately confessed to me to me that their parents are always busy” [2]. Some adults worry that children are overly reliant on their smartphones and other devices, but the pressures of replying to work emails or texts can make parents become distracted, and it sends a powerful message to their children that they have more important priorities than communicating with them.  To ensure you are not setting and modelling bad habits, particularly with younger children, actively communicating what you are doing is a great way to set good habits for your child [7].

Connecting And Understanding To Minimise Risks

By connecting with their children about what they are doing online, parents can also help manage potential risks. This is most applicable to parents of young children, who can develop healthy media habits by promoting joint engagement and creative, educational technology use. ‘Mostly together’ use of devices is one of the key points made by author Anya Kamenetz in her book ‘The Art of Screen Time’ [7]. The author also acknowledges that parents are commonly busy with many life pressures and therefore tend to use media to keep their children entertained.

As children become more independent in their technology use, parents should still take an interest in what they are doing with their devices, the time they spend on them and most importantly, how it makes them feel.  As Kamenetz notes, “If all they ever hear is “Turn that off!” we won’t learn much about what they’re watching and why they like it” [7]. For many young people, their smartphones are a major part of their life and therefore can create challenges for parents to engage with their child about the use of a such a powerful device that they themselves didn’t grow up with.

Parents should instead use this reliance on technology as an opportunity to connect with their children and have discussions before problems arise.

Monitoring And Mentoring Strategies

One of the biggest challenges parents in the digital age face is how to keep their children safe online. Children are at risk of encountering cyberbullying, online predators and exposure to inappropriate content when using the Internet. As a result, parents can choose to utilise monitoring software as a tool to help keep their children safe. Monitoring software exists on a spectrum, with invasive spyware at one end of the scale and at the other end of the spectrum there are tools used primarily for checking threatening behaviour without specific reports.

Many of the invasive monitoring programs that are currently available are used to assert control over the young person’s activities, instead of helping them learn how to navigate the web safely [5]. Monitoring is best used in conjunction with mentoring, which ensures families discuss and understand safe online practices and appropriate behaviour. As children grow older it’s important to discuss scenarios where for example,  a stranger might ask them for personal information, and how they could respond. [4]. Parents who use more invasive spyware, as opposed to non-invasive monitoring tools, run the risk of eroding the trust of their child and miss the opportunity to guide them in the development of 21st-century life skills.

How To Approach Negotiating Screen Time

We know that excessive reliance on devices is linked to negative repercussions such as obesity and disrupted sleep [1], however, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach on how to manage screen time. Parents can tailor their approach to suit their children and focus on moderating the quality of Internet use as well as the amount of time being spent on screens.

Banning screen time altogether prevents them from exploring the benefits of digital media. In a digital world, technological fluency is likely to be critical for a child’s future. Children learn by playing and can benefit from the opportunity to explore electronic devices as effective tools for creation, discovery and connection [7].

As children grow older and begin using technology for homework and socialising, parents can work collaboratively with them to reduce screen time where possible. It can be challenging to harness the learning potential of digital media without letting them get distracted by social media and other notifications. A solution to mediate this is by utilising ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode on a smartphone, or other productivity apps such as ‘Anti-Social’ to limit alerts and reminders during homework time. This helps your children take responsibility for managing distractions themselves, helps them prioritise their tasks with the need to socialise and communicate with their friends.[4].

Challenges And Opportunities Of Socialising Online

As a parent, it can be very difficult to understand all of your child’s online social habits and interactions. It will be an individual decision if and when you permit your child to begin using social media platforms.  Interacting socially online can be a crucial step in your child’s social development. This type of interaction exposes them having to deal with the pressures of being accessible 24/7, navigating and managing escalating arguments, feelings of being left out and peer group pressure to engage in the sharing of inappropriate self-produced images, known as sexting. Having open discussions and use of monitoring software can be critical tools to assist your child in learning how to manage risk.

Ready to take action to protect your family? Download our FREE eBook, ‘Cyber Safety: The Essential Guide To Protect Your Children Online’.

Advice For Parents

While potential challenges cannot be denied, digital technologies provide children with opportunities for entertainment, socialisation and learning. As with all things in life, moderation is key. Nearly 8 in 10 New Zealand teens agree with the statement, “There are a lot of things on the internet that are good for people my age” [3]. The best strategies to deal with challenges posed to parents in the digital age are:

  • Keep an open line of communication
  • Model a healthy relationship with technology and online behaviour
  • Educate yourself and your children about safe online practices
  • Monitor using appropriate practices or tools
  • Develop guidelines about device and Internet use as a family
  • Set limits and encourage offline activities
  • Create tech-free zones in your home

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