Technology, the internet and the 21st century child – how parents can tame the beast

By Joseph Degeling, Psychologist

For most of human history information has only ever travelled as fast as a horse could run. 200 years ago, letting our family and friends back in mother England know what we were up to in the new colony of Australia would have taken months on end. 10 years ago we had to walk to our computer to get on the internet or check our emails, print out our photos to show them to friends, play a DVD to watch our favourite movie and phone a friend to hear what they were doing. These days, to our great advantage, messages and “status updates” are sent almost instantaneously. We can do our banking, watch our favourite movie, receive live sport updates, follow the comments of our favourite people, and play Scrabble with someone on the other side of the world all from our mobile phones.

The value that the internet and technology can add to our lives is enormous, but how aware are we as parents of the content that is actually available to our young people, and what do we actually know about the internet, technology and all that it entails in the 21st century? I must confess that I feel somewhat inadequate – like a lot of other parents out there, my knowledge of technology isn’t that great. You see, the way that we adults use the internet and technology is vastly different to the ways in which our young people are using it, and I think that this can place us at a great disadvantage. Adults tend to use the internet for practical or work related tasks, whilst young people use it as an extension of their social world – their participation in the real and cyber world is much more seamless than it is for adults. Parents need to understand this difference, as it will more than likely filter down into a very different set of expectations around the use of technology and, more than likely, be a source of conflict and tension within the household.

In my clinical work I am seeing more and more the effects of the improper use of technology, albeit more so amongst teenagers, but also in younger children as well. Some of my observations have been: chronically reduced sleep quality due to late night usage of smart phones; increases in the reporting of cyber bullying; problematic levels of internet and computer use (most notably computer games); problems associated with sexting (sending and receiving explicit images of oneself or somebody else); problems associated with accessing adult content, and content which just shouldn’t be available; as well as parents talking to me about the difficulties they have in setting limits on computer and mobile phone usage. For many of the young people and parents I see, technology has become a beast needing to be tamed!

Parents have started way behind the eight ball, and continue to be placed so as the rapid increase in technology continues. Kids live so much more in this world and are so much quicker at absorbing and adapting to the pace of technological change. How do we best assist our children in developing appropriate attitudes to their use of technology? A reactive response to improper usage, where technology is restricted for large amounts of time may be the default response of many parents, but it is not the best parenting technique in the long term. In fact some researchers argue that restriction of the internet can be worse for kid’s safety online, as it may push them to be more secretive about their usage.

Developmental considerations also need to be taken into account – it is normal for young people to take risks and to experiment, to test boundaries and become angry when parents enforce consequences. The internet and technology are no exception. Just like any other behaviour in the home, we have to encourage good behaviour and set clear boundaries, maintain a high level of consistency and enforce consequences when our kids don’t meet these expectations. In this sense there is no difference from parenting in the digital age, to parenting at any other time in history – it’s just the context that is different. The earlier that we establish these expectations in our children’s lives the easier it will be for us and them.

Some key tips that may help you think more about parenting in the cyber age (please continue reading other sources for more tips) –

  1. Develop your knowledge of the ins and outs of the digital world – read, explore and experiment yourself. Talk to your fellow parents, talk to the IT teachers at school, and attend talks and presentations. But most of all talk to your child: get them to be the “expert” – sit alongside them and be inquisitive about what they are doing – enjoy all of the great aspects of technology together;
  2. Take some notice of the different ways in which your children use their technology;
  3. Monitor your child’s usage of technology and set firm boundaries about when and where they can use it;
  4. Position the computer in a public space where it is easily monitored – If your child has their own laptop/tablet make some rules about where and when it can be used.
  5. Always set time limits on usage, and set technology free periods during the week (i.e. Sunday is a device free day – for everyone!);
  6. Do not let your children take their electronic devices to bed – There is mounting evidence that the light emitted from digital devices is enough to disturb our sleep-wake cycle by disrupting our biological clock and supressing the secretion of melatonin – the sleep chemical. Some parents have very successfully set a rule that all digital devices must be kept plugged into their chargers in the kitchen (or other space) from a certain time in the evening. Turning off Internet modems at night time is also a viable strategy. If they argue that they need their phone because it’s their alarm as well, buy them an alarm clock!
  7. Talk to your kids about cyber bullying – as with other forms of bullying, changes in their mood or behaviour may be indicative of some form of cyber bullying. Parents should talk with their kids regularly about how things are going in their friendship circles; particularly if there have been big changes. Limiting the child’s internet usage is not a good way to stop cyber bullying, as, according to research, most kids are less likely to tell adults about cyber bullying if they think their access will be curtailed in some way. One good way that parents can teach their kids about responding to cyber bullying is the Stop, Block, Tell approach: Stop correspondence immediately, Block the person from sending messages and Tell a parent or talk to one of their school teachers;
  8. Prepare for the standard arguments they will put forward about why they need their devices – your child will go to great lengths to keep their technology close by: some common arguments may be: “I need it for my homework”, “it’s my computer /phone”, “all my friends are allowed to use them at night time” or “I just want to listen to music” – prepare your answers to these in advance but don’t change the house rules;
  9. Have set consequences if your child pushes the boundaries – remind your child that access to all technology is a privilege and is contingent on expectations about usage being met: but be realistic in your consequence – taking their internet privilege for a week is probably too harsh, and may encourage secretive behaviour, whilst losing it for a day may have achieved the same result: the main point is that if the boundary is broken, some consequence follows.

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