Parenting in the age of technology

Are there new ways of thinking about technology that will make parenting easier? asks Prof Amanda Gordon

Parenting in the age of technology was hard enough.  We had to make so many decisions about phones, and screens, and apps, and snapchat, and Facetime, and tiktok and Instagram … and, and, and, … including apps we hadn’t heard of and our children brought to us.  Now, in the time of COVID-19, there is an added layer of complexity to an already difficult task.

Choices about screen-time are particularly difficult when schooling is online. Should there be time for just playing on the computer, when the child has been staring at it all day? When play-dates are limited, is it okay to have the children chat online?

Decisions are being made with a belief that least possible harm is being done.  Very few parents I speak to believe that technology is totally good for their children, although often there are some good aspects to it.   Everyone knows that too much technology, without enough exercise or social engagement, is not in the best interests of the child.  Everyone knows that children can be bullied online – but sometimes we do not realise how unsafe our child may be. It seems that for most parents, there is an ongoing balancing act with technology, wanting their children to learn the skills and be part of the group, while knowing that there are risks that are being taken.

Are there new ways of thinking about technology that will make parenting easier?

Maybe a better question would be:  are there different ways of thinking about parenting that will make decisions about technology easier?

Parenting, in an ideal world, is a collaborative task.  There’s Mum and Dad (or Mum and Mum or Dad and Dad), and the grandparents, extended family, close friends, the community – supporting each other in providing the best environment and sensible, safe, choices for the children.  That’s the ideal world.  For some of us, that may be the case.  For most of us, sometimes it feels as if we are alone, making unpopular decisions that we believe are in the best interest of the child or family, or, alternatively, often going along with what “everyone else” seems to be doing, to avoid our child having a meltdown.

I like to think about the goal of parenting: To build happy, healthy, effective, independent, adults. Happiness along the way is sort of incidental.  Children can’t help themselves.  They will find joy in movement, in creativity, in effectiveness.  They will model our moods, so when we are happy they will learn about it and find a way of being happy, too. So we don’t have to make decisions on a daily basis to try to make our child happy in that moment.  The idea is to ensure they are building the skills to live life to the full into adulthood.  Sometimes, then, we have to make choices as parents that don’t actually make our kids delighted in the moment.  They will have to learn to manage the disappointment that they don’t always get what they want – not just because it is not affordable or appropriate, but because you as a parent have decided that the thing they want is not in their best interest at that time.  That goes for wanting access to a phone, or a particular app you don’t want them to have, or screen time when you think it’s enough already.

So, thinking about parenting in those terms – of helping your children have the best future possible – it may make it easier to determine how they should use technology now.

Some simple tips may help:

  1. Talk about it with other parents and with experts such as school counsellors.  No matter what your child says, not “everyone” will be doing whatever it is that they are trying to persuade you to do.   A cohort of sensible parents can unite and decide that this is not a reasonable thing for this age group, and supporting each other means that you KNOW that your child does not have to be an outlier.
  2. Your child needs balance in their life – enough exercise, enough creative space, enough socialising, and some time on the screen, especially if that is the only way that they can access their friends. However, just as you would call them in from play at the end of the day, if they were outside with friends, you can “call them back” from their friends online and bring them back to your household, when they have had enough (in your opinion, not theirs).
  3. It is vital that you monitor what your children are doing online.  Very young children should not be doing anything without your direct supervision, just as you wouldn’t have them babysat by a complete stranger.  As your children get older, you can pull back, but they have to know that you have their password and will check their history from time to time.  Emphasise that they must not do anything that they would not feel comfortable with you seeing it.
  4. Bullying happens online.  Address it.  Talk about it.  Do not allow your child to be a victim or a bully. Talk to the school if it is happening on the “virtual playground”. Alert the teachers to the dangers, when classes are online and kids are chatting.
  5. If your child gets anxious or irritable when they are not allowed their screen, they may be becoming addicted.  It is vital that they find the joy in other things and learn to limit their use of the screen.

Right now, all parts of parenting feels harder than it did.  However, if you use this time, when your children are forced to be at home more and are learning to socialise remotely, to engage with your kids, you can assist them with important lessons for life.

Prof Amanda Gordon, is a Clinical Psychologist in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, Armchair Psychology