Tech, Teens and Trust: Navigating the Digital World of our Children
By Sara Perkins, Senior Manager, Digital & Social Media at Pearson
Those of us parenting in a digital world, frankly, don’t know what we’re doing. Warnings about the negative impact of screen time and social media abound. We are told that the internet is a breeding ground for cyberbullies and predators, a facilitator of social isolation and mental health challenges, and a mad scientist that is rewiring our kids’ brains so they can’t concentrate while also exposing them to an unmitigated cesspit of bad language and porn. These threats — combined with the lack of response from the big players in the tech field — have left parents floundering in a stormy, unregulated digital ocean.
For now, the best way for parents to mitigate the hazards of the digital world is for them to be as digitally savvy as their children.The following are a few tips that might help them do just that.
1. Walk your talk
It is vital that parents model the behaviour they expect from their kids when it comes to the use of devices and social media. A family mission statement on how, when and where smartphones are used can be helpful if it’s something everyone buys into. Experts suggest that parents are best placed as mentors rather than micromanagers when it comes to the use of technology, with the idea that conversation is more powerful than coercion. You might decide, for example, to keep mealtimes tech-free, but it won’t work if parents have iWatches pinging messages to them over pizza. Thinking about your relationship with digital tech, and discussing it as a family is a great place to start.
2. Sleep is sacred
Most experts agree that parents should be aware of the effect technology is having on children’s sleep. Having clear boundaries around the use of smartphones at night and around bedtime routines is important. Left to their own devices (pun intended), many kids will text and receive messages when they should be winding down.
3. Deal or no deal
I can honestly say that screen time is the only thing we fight with my 12-year-old daughter about, and while negotiation is always our first step, we have set non-negotiables around her device use because, well, we pay the bill. We have access to all of our daughter’s passwords, social media and chat accounts, not so that we can spy on her, but so she knows that we can, at any time, see what she is saying and doing online. We’ve tried a number of parental control tools along the way too, and you might find them useful: OurPact, Circle Home, and Forest.
4. Know your Finsta from your Rinsta
Parents need to understand that the way they engage online is not how their kids engage online. Sitting down with my daughter and going through her apps opened my eyes to how she uses Instagram’s chat function more than its image sharing features. I was exposed to Snapchat streaks, Finsta (“fake” Instagram) and Rinsta (“real” Instagram) accounts, and a host of terrifying anonymous apps that went instantly into the NO DEAL pile and were deleted. Any app that enables anonymous posting is an absolute NO in our house. We went through each app’s geolocation features, switching off where appropriate, and talked through the data that was being collected. I find having this check-in regularly and getting my daughter to talk me through the what and the why makes me feel more comfortable and keeps the conversation open.
I’ve also found it helpful to understand my daughter’s school’s policy on social media — teachers and educators often have real insight into the latest social media trends, and can be great allies in tackling problems.
5. Fill their world with alternatives and dial up the good
Where possible, we try to fill our daughter’s life with books, music, outdoor activities and shared experiences offline, but we also embrace the opportunity to teach her to be a responsible digital citizen by sharing screen time, talking about images, encouraging critical thinking and understanding, and discussing the power of advertising, influencers and data. We feel our task is not so much to protect her from the online world, but to encourage her autonomy, her ability to make good decisions, and to equip her with the information she needs.
While the secret life of our children has never felt more dangerous, I also realise that teenagers today have the same angst, insecurities, challenges and need for guidance as other generations of teens. The difference now is that everything is chronicled publicly and the pace of change means that parents need to constantly upgrade their knowledge. It’s a parenting task pre-digital adults did not sign up for, but we’re in it. For every hour spent on an app, there is always a walk in the park to be taken; for every Kardashian, we can show them a Malala.