Parenting in the digital age

September 1, 2020

 

 It was late into the night and I noticed my girls’ room lights were still on. They were still up and heavily immersed in their phones.

 

This was in the days before service providers offered unlimited talk and text. Then, when I took the phone away, it was meltdown time. Gee whiz, it was worse than me saying, “You’re grounded!”

 

Many parents share the same experience and for some it can get challenging.

 

According to a July poll from Pew Research Center, two-thirds of parents in the U.S. say parenting is harder today than it was 20 years ago. The reason? Technology, like smartphones and social media.

 

This is an important discussion, especially with more children going online for school and the rising concerns about making sure schoolwork is the only thing they’re doing online. Many parents have returned to work and are not able to watch over their kids’ actions.

 

The situation reminds me of the PSAs in the 70s and 80s asking “Its 11 pm., do you know where your children are?”  Except today the PSA would be, “It’s 11 pm, do you know what your child is doing online?”

While I can’t say parenting is harder today than in the past due to technology, I can say that parenting is definitely different, and parents need to develop and rely on a different set of tools and skills.

 

It’s fairly common for high-schoolers and middle-schoolers to have their own smartphones, and more and more we’re seeing younger kids with their own smartphones. For kids (and adults) the smartphone is a lifeline to their social life and most of their hobbies – music, games and movies.   

In many ways parenting is easier because of the smartphone.

 

Smartphones make it easier to keep the younger kids entertained, though I would advise against relying on them as a babysitter.  It’s easier to steer them away from unsavory content.  Parents can set up parental controls to filter content by ratings or block certain content. They can access watch history to make sure their children are following the rules.

 

Educational material is more accessible. Beyond educational videos and websites (a lot of which is free), children have access to online tutoring. Parents that want to be more involved can reach teachers and schools by email. 

Parents that have adult children can stay connected even when these children are traveling or living abroad. This is particularly important for me, as three of my four children are on their own and living in the mainland US. It’s nice to be able to talk to them or do a video call with them for free. Children may leave the nest, but we can still stay connected with them and involved in their lives.

 

It’s easier to keep children safe. For me, I decided to give my kids their own phones while they were growing up because it was important for my kids to be able to contact me when they needed me.

 

In other ways, technology can make parenting harder than several years ago. While digital connectivity can be used to help our kids learn and connect, there are still concerns about overuse, bullying and safety.

 

The debate of how much screen time is too much is always ongoing. The World Health Organization issued guidelines in 2019 that recommend children 3 to 5 years old should avoid sedentary screen time that lasts more than an hour, while screen time is not recommended at all for toddlers younger than three years old. For health concerns, like eye health, its best to consult with your doctor for personalized care.

 

I always did my best to encourage my kids to go outside, get some sunshine and do physical activity.

 

Cyber bullying continues to be an issue. Parents must teach children how to recognize bullying and encourage them to report any bullying and avoid actions that could be conceived as bullying.

 

It’s so important to teach children empathy so they understand the harm they can cause to others with their online actions. It’s daunting to realize that when we use social media, we hold power over our own reputations and the reputation of others. It’s important to teach children about the long-term consequences of their online actions.

There’s no lack of tools available to parents to monitor what young children are doing online, from free services from Google, Apple and Microsoft that only require you to sign up for an email to register the respective devices to paid services, like Qustodio.

 

 Both services allow you to see your child’s activity, set screen time limits, block websites and so on, but parenting is more than keeping your kid away from the bad things. Parenting is also about educating your child on how to navigate the digital world on their own. As a child gets older, you may want to give them freer rein to learn and discover, but also allowing them some privacy.   

 

In a 2016 study completed by Pew Research Center, parents of younger teens report they tend to take a more active role in monitoring behavior online and on smartphones, with 68% of parents of 13 to 14-year-olds have checked which websites their teen visits, compared with 56% of parents of 15- to 17-year-olds.

Some 46% of parents of younger teens report using parental controls to monitor their child’s online activities, compared with 34% of parents of older teens.

 

Additionally, there are dangers outside of content that can be found on random websites or social media – one of which is sexting. Keep in mind that Guam and most places have anti-sexting laws that forbid such communications with minors, whether it’s between an adult and a minor or between two minors.

 

Parents can be distracted by our smartphones too. Technology adds another layer of distractions on top of work, home making and so on.  A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 68% of parents in the US say they at least sometimes feel distracted by their phone when spending time with their kids. So, while smartphones can be used to capture and create awesome memories, there’s also a time to put it down and have some tech-free bonding.

 

Today there’s a whole lot of “sharenting,” or sharing photos, videos and updates of children on social media. There are a lot of reasons to share, like keeping distant family members a part of daily life or just genuinely sharing pride in the accomplishments of our children.

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Not a lot of parents worry about their children being upset about the things posted about them on social media, though. Part of parenting today is making decisions of what to share about our family life. Does the consent of our children matter to us? Are we worried about who will see this content?

 

As parents in the digital age, we are not only responsible for technology’s impact on our children, but on ourselves. In addition to setting limits for our children, we need to set limits for ourselves and use technology to improve ourselves as parents.

 

Parents can also use their smartphones and online resources to find help and support. In the past, parents got parenting advice from other family members or rely on personal experience and instinct. If one was really interested in different parenting techniques, they might pick up a book. Now parents have access to articles and other content, (as long it’s from a reliable source). Parents have access to online support groups. This is especially important for parents with children that have special needs.  

 

Is parenting harder than it was 20 years ago? I think parenting is hard at any point in time, but the challenges are different. Parents must be as (if not more) tech savvy as their children.

 

My advice to parents – try out your children’s devices and their favorite apps. You don’t have to be an “influencer” to know about Instagram or TikTok. These devices and apps are designed to be easy-to-use.

Above all, as in any era of parenting, communication is important. Parents should openly state their expectations and their concerns. We need to warn children about the dangers, while also teaching them how to avoid these dangers independently.

Jay R. Shedd is  senior director of Sales, Marketing and Customer Service at IT&E, the largest wireless service and sales provider in Guam and the Marianas. He has more than 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry.

 

 

 

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