This year we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, an economic downturn and uncertainty about what the rest of 2021 will bring. Parents are stressed. Kids are restless. And we are all looking for new strategies and tools to find balance, connect in meaningful ways, and keep our spirits up during various phases of lockdown.
It is with this unprecedented background, that today we mark Safer Internet Day, an annual, global celebration that began in Europe in 2004 and which has now spread to 170 countries, including the United States. This day provides us all a moment to reflect on the state of the online world and how we are doing in response to the many and varied risks, harms as well as potential rewards that our digital lives bring.
In our recent research report, Tools for Today’s Digital Parents, we found fascinating differences between older and younger parents. Amongst Baby Boomers, top concerns included outside threats and online predators. Gen X parents reported that harmful content was their worst worry. But it was Millennial parents who signaled that their biggest fear was that their children would experience bad behavior online or that their kids would be the perpetrator.
When asked if parents had the most responsibility to keep their kids safe online, 57% of Boomer parents agreed, whereas 43% of Gen X parents said the same, while just 30% of Millennial parents felt they held the chief responsibility – instead stating that industry, government and schools should also share the burden of online safety.
That is a dramatic shift across the generations and bears out our own concept of a Culture of Responsibility, in which government, law enforcement, the tech industry, parents, teachers and kids themselves have different but overlapping areas of responsibility for online safety.
What also became clear in our study is that there is a growing set of online safety tools that have been developed by apps and social media sites to be used by teens and young people rather than parental controls that are imposed from above. Teens’ attitudes to these tools are nicely summed up by one of our respondents who said:
“When I think about 'online safety tools,' I think about personal safety and being smart. However, when I think of 'parental controls', I think of strict, overbearing, and invasive.” – Brianna C., age 16
In other words, these tools that allow kids to block, report, silence or filter out what they don’t want to see or experience give young people agency over their online lives. It provides them the means to recover from a bad experience and thus build a sense of resiliency.
Parents, on the other hand, particularly of kids aged between 7 and 11, feel overwhelmed by the sheer range of devices, websites, apps and online games they are trying to understand and monitor. While three quarters of parents give themselves high marks for the online safety discussions they have with their kids, two thirds of them feel unsatisfied with the tools they have to keep their kids safe online. That’s a challenging indictment of the tech industry and a plea to ISPs, social media platforms, game makers and apps to make their parental controls easier to find and easier to use.
In the meantime, the vexed issue of screen time has been eclipsed by the challenges of Covid-19 and the need for kids to be online for school, to socialize, and to just chill out while stuck at home. Parents report that they have relaxed their views on screen time and are more likely to make the distinction between screen time and screen use. A ten-year-old spending an hour on her tablet speaking to her grandmother is vastly different to spending the same time mindlessly scrolling through unboxing videos.
One silver lining to the pandemic is the increased freedom kids are being given to explore on their own outside, without screens. They are using their imaginations to overcome their boredom and build resilience without the overbearing presence of their parents and caregivers.
So, while we reflect on where we are and the tough year we’ve all come through, let’s look with hope and optimism on 2021 and the coming years, as we gradually emerge from the hardships and restrictions of Covid-19. Let’s bring our new understandings about remote learning and remote working to better equip our kids for the digital skills and knowledge they will need in their careers.
As adults and parents, let’s model healthy online habits and resiliency for the young people in our care. And let’s work together with our kids, not just for a better Internet, but for a more sane and balanced way of life, as we create a path to a new normal in a post-pandemic world.