Parenting in an Online World

July 13, 2021

Most of us would agree that it can be challenging to raise children in today’s fast-paced, high-tech world. The widespread use of tablets and smartphones, the rise of social media, and our children’s digital engagement creates a whole new range of questions for parents.

Sometimes as parents we need to remember to appreciate the benefits technology brings to our children’s lives. It exposes them to a wealth of information that can build their knowledge and experience. Our children can learn almost anything using technology, from cookery to guitar lessons to learning a new language. For young children, there is support for developing literacy and numeracy skills through a huge array of educational games and apps. Being online can help children become more creative and can expand their world view. Technology can also make children feel less isolated as it takes away physical barriers to connecting with friends and family who may live a distance away.

Having said that, research tells us that one in five of us argue with our children about device use on a daily basis! Time spent online is one of the most common issues that cause family arguments. Research from the UK found that both teens and parents felt mobile devices were daily distractions in family life. Many teens reported feeling addicted to their technology and highlighted technology usage as an emerging source of conflict within families. Younger children spent on average five hours a day on screens, while for teens this rose to almost seven and a half hours. These findings suggest many of us need to do a better job of monitoring screen time and making sure it is balanced with other aspects of life.

But before we start to look at the issues in terms of our children’s usage maybe we need to start by looking at our own! Technology enables us to interact in ways many of us would never have dreamed about in our childhoods. But it can also deprive us of meaningful family connections in our own homes. Never before has it been easier to connect with others via technology, but sometimes we are so distracted by our phones that it can impact on our interactions with our children.

An international survey asked more than 6,000 children about their parent’s mobile phone usage and found that children were very aware of competing with technology for their parent’s attention. More than a third of the children said their parents spent the same or less time with them as they did on their phones. The biggest grievance was parents being distracted by their phones during conversations with their children. I know this really resonated with me as a parent who works from home, and who is reliant on technology to do so.

There are a few questions we can ask ourselves which can help us to look at our own use of technology, leaving us in a better place to consider our children’s usage. How often are we so distracted by our phones that our children have to vie for our attention? How often do we stop mid-conversation to respond to our phones? How often do we respond to our children’s questions without shifting our gaze from our phone screen?

For me, asking myself those questions has led me to make some small, but I hope significant changes. Little things like taking time to stop and consider the way I respond to my children when I am working online have helped. Instead of distractedly answering my children while facing my computer, which I often used to do, I try to turn away from the screen and face the child when I respond. If I am in the middle of an important document, I may well tell them I need a moment to finish, then I can talk. But when I finish, clicking save on the document, and again turning to face them can help us to connect. If I am looking at my phone and one of them wants to talk, I try to place the phone face down in front of me while I answer, again trying to show them I am giving them my full attention.

Taking the time to consider how we respond to these digital distractions can help us to put in place small but meaningful changes. These can make a real difference in how we connect with our children. Then we are in a much better position to really consider our children’s use of technology and to support them in negotiating the online world in a safe and responsible way.

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