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Don’t freak out: parenting a child of the digital age

CHRISTIAN LIVING | Tess Holgate
Tuesday 26 May 2015

“Minimising the factual risks of what’s out there in social media is as unhelpful as exaggerating them. Fear can create over-involvement or under-involvement so the challenge for a parent is to get that balance right,” says Jenny Brown of the Family Systems Institute. There are scary things on the Internet, but our kids live in that world and are probably more okay with it than their parents are. Three parenting experts give us their wisdom on how to talk to your digitally savvy children about the dangers of the Internet. smartphone

Today’s teenagers are fluent in digital culture while their parents often lag behind. They Google stuff, Facebook their friends, and Instagram pictures of meals, pets, plants, and themselves. How can a parent raise a child in a digital world?

TeenSafe – a US-based iPhone, Android and tablet monitoring service – was launched in Australia last month. The program enables parents to monitor their child’s smartphone behaviour including incoming, outgoing and deleted text messages, web browsing history, contacts, call logs, location, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Kik activity.

“The most dangerous part of the world our children are growing up in is the exposure they have to subjects through their smartphones that their brains are just not ready for. With full access to the world of information and communication, children are left subjected to extreme social, cyberbullying, sexual harassment and peer-pressure issues,” says Rawdon Messenger, TeenSafe’s CEO. “With all these trends rising dramatically every year, we believe that a child’s safety trumps privacy in every situation.”

Eternity spoke to three parenting experts about the dangers of a smartphone, the nature of parenting in the digital world and a teenagers’ right to privacy.

James Boswell, co-author of Cyberparenting: raising your kids in an online world says, “We believe the smartphone is the real game changer, because of its extreme mobility and extreme connectedness”.

“When a teen looks at a smartphone, the last thing they see is a device for making phone calls.”

“When a teen looks at a smartphone, the last thing they see is a device for making phone calls. They see a connection to a new world, where they will construct their own reality. Through this portal in their pocket they connect to and can participate in content, relationships and worldviews that may be vastly different to your own family values,” says Boswell.

Today’s children and teenagers are digital natives; their parents are not.

For parents, there are plenty of objectively frightening things on the Internet, including but not limited to pornography, cyber-bullying and predatory behaviour, and it is easy for parents who have a well established and reasonable filter to give in to panic and fear surrounding their child’s contact with this new Internet world.

Author and psychologist Jenny Brown says, “The hardest challenge for a parent is to respond to the reality needs of a child, whatever age the child is, rather than to exaggerate and respond out of anxiety and fear.”

“Minimising the factual risks of what’s out there in social media is as unhelpful as exaggerating them. Fear can create over-involvement or under-involvement so the challenge for a parent is to get that balance right.”

“Parents can be intimidated by how much their kids know, especially about technology, but they’re still not capable of making wise decisions if they’re stirred up by peer pressure and emotions. They still need a parent to offer very clear guidance in a non-anxious way,” says Brown.

Brett Ryan, Director of Family First, prefers to think in terms of boundaries. “[Children] are all different, and all uniquely hard wired by God to respond to different types of verbal expectation, discipline, and boundaries, so as a parent you have to figure out what is appropriate … But the boundaries do move as they mature and take on greater responsibility and be trusted with different things.”

The fraught question of where the boundaries lie and when and how they should be moved is another question all together, but Boswell, Brown and Ryan all agree that it is essential for parents to be informed and involved in their child’s world, so that the parent can gradually relax the boundaries when the child is ready.

“Children as well as parents learn from their mistakes, even from a young age,” says Brown. We need to give them “the appropriate amount of exploration space without putting them at risk that they don’t have the experience to deal with.”

Ryan agrees, but suggests that the risks and consequences of the digital world are different to simply falling in the playground. He uses the case study of pornography: “You can protect your home all you like, putting on Covenant Eyes or TeenSafe, but then they go out in to the real world where they’re going to see these things for themselves, and they have to make their own choices.”

“The more that they own, the more they will actually adhere to because it’s not what mum and dad say all the time, it’s actually what they believe”

He advocates giving children informed choices – giving your own reasons for why you think viewing pornography is bad, and letting them make their own decisions.

“The more that they own, the more they will actually adhere to because it’s not what mum and dad say all the time, it’s actually what they believe,” says Ryan.

Ryan says that a product like TeenSafe will “help make parents feel secure, but it might make the teenager feel like their personal space is being invaded.”

This sense of a ‘right to privacy’ that many teens feel is a hotly contested topic. Parents differ on their approaches to it, even if teens are generally consistent in their requests for it.

Boswell is “hesitant to think of a child’s privacy from their parent as an entitlement. We may choose to give our teens some degree of privacy, but we are still their parents, and have responsibilities, both God-given and expected by our civil society, to do what is right for our children. Sometimes this will mean less privacy than they might like.”

Brown says, “We are all entitled to privacy, of course that grows from an early age. Like everything in parenting it is a continuum of gradually increased privacy.”

“However,” Brown continues, “I don’t think entire privacy. For a parent to do their job well they need information. In terms of privacy, the content of conversations and what a child is saying to their friends can lead to a parent anxiously telling their child how to handle that friendship.”

Ryan reports that in his conversations with teens they often say, “I wish I could speak to my parents about this,” while parents often say, “my kids just don’t want to listen to me.”

“You have to earn the right to speak into people’s lives, and parents have to do the same thing.”

He believes that this communication chasm is the problem. “You have to earn the right to speak into people’s lives, and parents have to do the same thing.”

“Respond rather than react,” says Ryan. “Respond in a way that they feel comfortable, secure, like you’re not going to come down hard on them but be inquisitive (just not like the Spanish Inquisition!)”

“Kids need to know that they can ask you anything and everything, even the embarrassing [questions], because it’s much better for you as a parent to be able to give them an informed decision, as one who’s got their best interests at heart, rather than them going to search the internet, or worse, their peers to get the information,” says Ryan.

Returning to the idea of the parenting balancing act, Brown says, “the [parent’s] job is to allow reasonable exploration: a child learning responsibility while connected to their parent as caretaker and shepherd. If they can learn that job description rather than needing an answer all the time then they will do a better job for their child.”

Brown says that an overemphasis on one person in the family who is perceived as vulnerable can “put too much focus on one person and that make it harder for that one person to function at their best. They’re often more likely to become very anxious and reactive with the experience of being monitored.”

Monitoring programs like TeenSafe may help a parent do their parenting job better. But anything that is viewed as a catch-all solution to the ‘problems’ of parenting in the digital age is always going to disappoint.

“As parents, the internet filters and parental locks are to protect children from accidentally accessing or stumbling upon things that are not helpful. If children are deliberately trying to access inappropriate content or services you have a much bigger issue than any tool can solve,” says Boswell.

In a world where so many relationships are conducted online, at least in part, Brown says that it’s necessary for a parent to step into their child’s digital world by looking together at social media, and being interested and balanced about it.

Brown, Boswell and Ryan agree: It’s just not possible to outsource parenting to technology.

Image: Japanexperterna.se on Flickr, used under CC License.

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