The five practices that will help you Parent in the Age of Technology
If we weren’t asking this question before the Covid pandemic, we certainly are now that we find ourselves tech-entangled in its aftermath: How do we help our children stay safe while they are exploring, learning, having fun and socializing in the digital world?
This question was irrelevant for the “Street-Light Generation” of kids (i.e. the parents of today), who spent most of their spare time outside of the home, out and about with their friends until the sun came down. Often with very little parental oversight. Weren’t those the days!
Fast forward [by not too much] to today, and our children are spending more time than ever with us - in fact, there has never been a higher percentage (52%) of young adults living with their parents - so, where does our fear for their safety come from, then?
One source is sitting right in our pockets: The age of the mobile device has meant that even while our children are sitting right next to us, they may be millions of virtual miles away, in a world where risks are harder to see, harder to predict, and much harder to keep at bay.
This often makes parenting in the age of technology feel like an endless game of Whack-a-Mole.
It doesn’t have to be, though.
As a parent coach focused on emotional intelligence, positive psychology and digital wellness, my task is to transform confusion into empowerment by gathering together a tool-box of practices you can use on a daily basis in order to make your digital experiences safer, healthier and more enriching - for yourself and your child.
I am sharing 5 of those practices with you here, which you can apply regardless of your child’s age:
- Check the Ratings
As children's consumption of digital content has increased, so have the questions around handling mature content and navigating online interactions. What I’ve found has recently made this issue extra challenging, is that young children are active on platforms that are rated well above their age. For example, I’ve heard from parents whose 8-year-olds use TikTok, even though it’s a 13+ platform (and 15+ according to the non-profit Common Sense Media). Be sure to always check the ratings of any app or platform your child asks you to use [no matter how popular], and depending on your family’s rules and values, either delay your child’s joining the platform as an independent user or only have them interact with it jointly with you or another adult.
- Feed the Algos
Many people felt a very real sense of overwhelm after watching The Social Dilemma, a documentary that unpacked the structure and design of social media platforms. While it is [unfortunately] true that every single thing that we share, click, like and watch - our personal data - is used to then feed us back digital content, this is exactly where some of our greatest power lies. We can choose what information to share, whom to follow, and what to click on - or as I like to call it, we can selectively “feed the algos (algorithms)” - in order to control and curate what we see in return. Research done by the non-profit Female Lead found that just by encouraging teenage girls to follow and interact with more inspirational, positive female figures on Instagram, they were able to transform how these girls related to this platform and what their future experiences there were like. I find this to be one of the key skills we can teach our children, from early on. Encouraging them to act in digitally healthy ways - think the difference between clicking on an educational video vs a present unpacking video - will drastically transform their digital lives.
- Sharent Mindfully
If tech-savvy sneakiness is our kids’ most problematic online behavior, then the parent equivalent has to be “sharenting,” defined as online sharing of child-related content by the parent(s). Before you think: “But I share so much of my child’s daily life on my social media platforms and I love it!” let me say that as with all parenting decisions, this one is also exclusively your own and is tied to your values and thoughts on your child’s privacy. My recommendation is simply to keep the following two things in mind before you share content related to your child: 1. Their safety and 2. The likelihood they will genuinely be hurt/offended/embarrassed by what you post when they are older. Be mindful of unintentionally disclosing sensitive information like the location of your child’s school, for example, or any highly personal [read: embarrassing] information about them. Remember: what happens online stays online, forever.
- Minimize Solitary Use
So much of our love for mobile devices is about their mobility, but that convenience can become problematic when the time comes for our children to start using them. Screens make it harder for us to help manage our kids’ online behavior because they ‘shield’ what’s really going on inside - think of a duck gliding on water. Below the surface [and screen] is where all the action is! Another key action we can take as parents is to minimize our children’s solitary interactions with the World Wide Web - especially when they’re younger. Solitary and excessive use has been shown to negatively impact their vocabulary as well as comprehension skills, but it can also leave them scared, confused and overwhelmed when they come across inappropriate and/or mature content. Prioritize co-watching and co-using when your kids are young, and stay involved even as they grow into their tween and teen years.
- Connect and Communicate
The one foundational piece of advice I have when it comes to keeping your children safer online [and offline, for that matter], is to normalize continuous conversations around their daily digital experiences. We know that by the time a child turns 5, their parents become significantly less involved in what they do online, which means that as children grow and start to use increasingly complex digital tools, their parents have less and less insight - and more fear and confusion - around their online experiences. To prevent this from happening in your own home, continue to not only join in on your children’s digital adventures (as I mentioned in the previous practice), but make it a habit to chat about them frequently too. Ask questions like what they do and don’t like about a particular app or platform and whether they sometimes feel like they’ve had a bit too much and need a break, or which online spaces they find to be the most kind and enjoyable and which ones they find to be the most divisive and unpleasant to use. This will help your child really feel like you are there to support them in their on- and offline worlds, and they’ll be much more likely to share any unsafe or inappropriate experiences with you.
Happy Internet Safety Month!