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Good Digital Parenting Is the Challenge of Our Age

 
Photo: Stuart Dredge
“I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on. There are some things that I won’t allow; I don’t want them on a social network.”

Uncle Tim — aka Tim Cook, CEO of Apple — certainly isn’t alone in thinking hard about how children are growing up in an age of smartphones, social networks, and constant connectivity.

His predecessor was even stricter: Steve Jobs’ children were famously iPadless: “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” Jobs told New York Times journalist Nick Bilton in 2010.

Eight years on, the challenges of digital parenting are, if anything, even more daunting. That’s because the current generation of parents are still getting to grips (and, frankly, often floundering) with technology’s impact on their own lives.

We’re the generation who overshared on MySpace/Facebook (delete according to which end of the generation you’re from), slid unsuspectinglyinto problematic smartphone habits, shared fake news and joined Twitter pitchfork mobs, and set ourselves the unattainable target of Inbox Zero.

 

How Do We Develop Better Habits?

There are positive things about technology, of course. But the point is that this generation of parents, the digital immigrants, are still figuring out how to deal with the negatives while trying to teach our children good digital habits.

That’s the backdrop to many of the challenges around digital parenting — screen time being the most obvious example. We worry about how much time our children are spending on screens, but often without really understanding the research available on the topic and while struggling to control our own device usage.

A lack of understanding can also be a barrier. Whatever our experience of physical or verbal bullying in our own childhoods, it doesn’t necessarily prepare us to offer the support our kids will need if (well, when) they encounter cyberbullying.

Those of us who grew up before the internet are tasked with raising kids in the era of two-click access to porn of every kind — whether our children are viewing it or dealing with the expectations and demands of other boys or girls who have been exposed to it.

It has taken many of us until 2018 to realize that we need to wean ourselves off the dopamine-hit excesses of social networks while trying to ensure our teenagers’ mental health isn’t suffering from the culture of likes and “perfect” influencers they follow on Instagram.

In a nutshell, we are still learning — and sometimes floundering — while also trying to teach the next generation to learn from our mistakes.

The stakes are high. A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner for England describes social media as a “cliff edge” for children starting secondary school in the UK — that’s age 11, around grade six in the United States.

The fact that children are changing schools around this age is important, though: It means that many get their first mobile phone around this time because they may be traveling independently to school and/or out with friends more often. With that phone comes (potentially) more unregulated-by-parents access to social networks, even though 13 remains the official minimum age to sign up for them.

“While 8–10s use social media in a playful, creative way — often to play games — this changes significantly as children’s social circles expand in Year 7,” the report’s summary explains. “The report shows many Year 7 children are finding social media hard to manage and becoming over-dependent on ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ for social validation. They also adapt their offline behaviour to fit an online image.”

Research released in 2017 by the UK’s communications regulator Of com found that by the age of nine, 12 percent of UK children have a social media profile. That rises to 28 percent by age 10, 46 percent by age 11, 51 percent at age 12, and 72 percent at age 13.

 

Teaching Children How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Technology

Our children are digital natives, and my generation are the digital immigrants trying to teach them good habits while they’re young enough not to realize how much we’re winging it.

Often, digital parenting boils down to one of two approaches. First, there’s the tougher approach: strict limits on screen time, bans on social networks, porn-blocking internet filters, monitoring software on smartphones.

Then there’s the more nuanced approach: bringing up children who’ll make the right decisions when encountering the problematic aspects of technology, rather than relying solely on bans and blocks.

It’s not an either/or choice: You can blend elements of the two — but it’s the latter approach that can feel more terrifying. Banning social networks may seem easy, but it doesn’t solve the task of preparing a child for that “cliff edge” when they are old enough to sign up.

Bringing up children who can cope with what the digital world throws at them is the task of our age. As things stand, we’re scrabbling together strategies from a mix of online articles, school-gate conversations, and our own intuition — or “blind-panic improvisation,” as I tend to think of it.

That’s why I’m writing a series of articles here on Medium about digital parenting and the online culture that our children are encountering.

From getting to grips with screen-time research and rooting out educational YouTube channels to understanding the privacy implications of smart speakers and connected toys, I’m writing not as an expert, but as a curious parent aware of how much I have to learn. Do learn with me.