Empowering parents in the digital landscape

Digital parenting skills haven’t kept pace with the development of technology, says Dr. Neelam Parmar

In almost every place in the world, technology has been embedded into our culture and used on a daily basis. There is so much innovation in tech itself that it is progressing at a phenomenal pace and nearly every week the media is announcing a new gadget or an upgrade of a new piece of tech or software. Almost all of us own some sort of smart phone or digital device and have become so dependant on it that it is barely out of sight. In a time where our children are surrounded by technology, it is no surprise that is now part of their everyday lives. They are able to switch between devices, apps and social media, without even realising what they are doing. For them digital life is just life. 

To many parents, this is an age of new information with so many new changes and inventions that they are finding it tough to keep up with their digital kids. Sometimes all of this is so baffling to parents that they are tempted to remain oblivious of the digital world and simply hope for the best. Or, with equally significant risks, withdraw digital access entirely from their child. At Ashford School, we take this very seriously and are now working alongside and in partnership with parents to empower them in areas of digital literacy and more importantly, what it means to parent in the digital age. Bringing up children has never been easy but bringing them up in the age of smart phones and tablets is even more challenging.  

Two out of three parents are ignorant of their children’s Internet activities – and, in part, this is because children are very good a hiding what they are doing

Findings in a 2012 survey of 2,017 individuals, conducted by online security software maker McAfee, show that two out of three parents are ignorant of their children’s Internet activities. In part, this is because children are very good at hiding what they are doing. For example, more than 50% (McAfee 2012) of all children routinely erase their Internet search histories. So when children get into trouble online, despite all that parents have done to keep them safe, it is often difficult to understand. The challenge is that you want your children to explore and enjoy the best from the Internet yet, when children face harm, it is a big setback and parents are often left blaming themselves because of their gap of knowledge in this field. 

The reality is that while technology has advanced quickly, digital parenting skills have not always kept pace. It may not be our fault, but it is definitely a problem. Although some of us are less likely to admit it, effective parenting has changed drastically over the past 20 years. Gone are the days where there was no surfing on the Internet, checking email or returning text messages while nursing a baby or having family time in the living room. Instead of waking up early to watch Saturday morning cartoons or rush home after school to catch the afternoon programmes, there are now podcasts and a never ending parade of children’s programmes available at all times of the day or pre-recorded on YouTube.

About 20 years ago, the most common way people communicated at home was to go and speak to them. Our parents did not text us to come downstairs when it was time for dinner or email us a list of chores. Generally, families communicated with each other face to face (or on the phone) because there was no other way to do it. While in the past many parents would speak to each other to discuss parenting styles, we now rely more on the plethora of information available in parenting sites and blogs.

While this is not a bad thing, it has shifted the more traditional parenting approaches to a relatively new parenting style. A lot of this shift is reflective of changes in our culture in which some parents now frequently communicate with their children and other parents in non-face-to-face ways (Facebook, texting, etc.). While these cultural shifts are moving along at a phenomenal rate, our parenting skills and approaches also need to reflect these new lifestyle changes, or at least consider how to ameliorate the possible negatives that they can and have already brought.  

The reality is that while technology has advanced quickly, digital parenting skills have not kept pace. It may not be our fault, but it is definitely a problem. Digital parenting is still very much in its infancy and not a smooth sailing journey but, as our children are more open to new technologies, trends and alternative ways of collaborating with their friends, it becomes our responsibility to keep up with them. 

As a parent and a digital professional, I understand and sympathise with the feeling of being overwhelmed by so much information and the desire to return to the days we grew up in where digital devices and the Internet just did not exist. But that is not an option for most of us. While there is no such thing as perfection, our new Digital Parenting book has been developed to give parents good enough information to get them started in the right direction in dealing with the technological challenges their children face.

Dr Neelam Palmer is Director of E-Learning in Ashford School and author of Digital Parenting