Changing the way we talk to children about technology

Journalist and parenting author Liat Hughes Joshi shares three lessons parents can use to have a more positive influence over their children’s relationship with tech

The phrase “every day is a school day” has perhaps never been truer than over these last two years. The pandemic has taught us more about how to exist and stay connected in a locked down world, and for parents, our recent education expanded into the realm of hybrid learning and technology played a central role in that learning – with all the trials and tribulations that come with it. For many parents, one of the biggest daily dilemmas we face is the relationship between children, screen time and cyber safety.  

We know technology is here to stay and we have the power to shift how we think of the relationship between children and technology and how we approach conversations around their screen time, and it has never been timely or more necessary. In fact, a recent survey by consumer cyber safety experts Norton revealed UK adults rated lessons on cyber safety to be as important as lessons on how to be prepared for an emergency (85% and 82% respectively), when asked how important it is for parents to teach their children a variety of topics. 

Is it time for a change in mindset? 

The most recent generations are the first to be truly “digitally native”, and some parents – who may not be as comfortable in the digital world – struggle with navigating their children’s screen time and cyber safety, often leading to the demonisation of said technology. And now, after years of reinforcing the idea that excessive screen time and tech is inherently bad, a new complication has emerged: technology in the classroom and hybrid ways of learning.  

The pandemic has shown that technology and education can go hand-in-hand and can be a good thing, whether that’s for interactive classroom activities, remote learning, staying connected with teachers and friends, and let’s face it – even some R&R. Parents should feel empowered to educate their children about the risks they face without impeding their freedom to explore what life – and indeed technology – has to offer. 

In fact, now exists an argument for encouraging productive screen time due to the educational and social benefits of many online interactions. It’s hard to argue that other screen-based activities, such as video calling relatives or keeping in touch with friends, were anything but positive during the pandemic, when our screens became our conduit to so much of the world beyond the confines of our homes.

However, just as they would be in a real-life setting, safety measures must be in place. And with research showing 95% of Britons agree that it’s more important than ever for parents to talk to their children about how to protect themselves and their information online, it might be time for parents to go back to school and take a few important lessons for themselves. 

Lesson 1: Be prepared 

One thing that struck me within the research is the high proportion of those surveyed admitting they find it difficult to protect their children from online threats – a whopping 75%. In order to talk about cyber safety with children, parents need to understand what their kids are doing online. There are numerous resources available to help parents learn about the safety of certain apps, shows and websites – and what are the watch-outs to look for – from reviews to parenting forums, as well as parental controls for those connected devices.

With this knowledge, parents can better prepare their children for various online scenarios or threats they would encounter online, just as they would when allowing them to, say, walk to school alone for the first time.  

Lesson 2: Be present 

The next step is being physically present around children during their early years of tech use. This not only enables us to keep an eye on potential issues, but also engenders a positive environment, encouraging tech use in a communal and familial setting.  

For example, in my own home, we have enforced a ‘Permission to Google’ policy. This is used by all members of the family when they want to browse the internet for a useful or positive reason during mealtimes. This could involve sourcing a song title the family are discussing, or finding out more about a mutual topic of interest. It’s a perfect example of tech use during family time only being rude if it is perceived as rude, as tech can provide a great opportunity to bond with children and encourage their curiosity.  

The primary school period is the perfect time to start building a strong foundation of mutual trust between parent and child, before kids enter the digital world on their own. Many parents are clearly concerned about relying too much on screens to keep children busy. So, aim to understand your own relationship with tech and when to put those devices down; your future self will thank you for it. 

Lesson 3: Be positive 

Finally, be open and positive with your child when discussing technology use and online safety. Tech doesn’t have to be a battleground and use of devices shouldn’t pit children against adults. As pessimism abounds, studies like the one by Norton are shedding light on the opportunities parents have to engage in positive conversations around tech with our kids. 

So, start those conversations – not lectures – on things like sharing information online, stranger danger, and the permanence of social media. No matter how daunting it may seem, being prepared, present, and positive with your children is always a great place to start. These three Ps might be a little trickier to implement than teaching your child the ABCs, but they could just make even the most challenging of digital conversations seem like child’s play.  

The benefits of being connected these last few years has really highlighted that digital life is part of life.

You might also like: Safety Net: Staying fine online

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