Alexa, what is digital parenting?
If you’re wondering what it means, you’re not alone. Essentially—it’s an extension of your own parenting, with a few twists.
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The receptionist at the pediatrician’s office handed me a clipboard and a stack of forms. There were questions: “How many hours of television do you let your kid watch? How many minutes do they spend on the computer or laptop? How much access do they have to their cellphone or tablet? Do they keep tech in their room? How much screen time do you allow your kids?”
My most honest answer would be “I don’t know.” I left the answers blank, in silent protest, because I didn’t want the doctors (or anyone else) telling me my digital parenting style was fundamentally wrong.
My kids are Generation Z; they’ve been thoroughly immersed in technology from day one. My husband is a software engineer who has worked at startups for most of his career. I’m a writer and editor; before that I practiced law. We’ve always worked long hours on our computers, at the office and at home. We were glued to our mobile phones and our laptops out of necessity. And then, of course, by choice. We need downtime entertainment. Streaming services, online games, podcasts, audiobooks: Yeah, we made time for those too.
School only reinforced our tech-centric examples. My kids were told they needed to complete assignments. Every kid in the district had to rent a laptop. They needed smartphones to stay socially connected. They needed to download apps to answer questions in class.
Has tech immersion fried their brains, like in those 1970s commercials warning my generation to stay off drugs? I don’t think so. They haven’t lost touch with reality. They’re sometimes out in nature and appreciate it. They’re wildly creative. They’re empathetic, hardworking and honest. They’re overall great human beings.
At the same time, I’m aware of the concerns about too much screen time.
Defining the role of a digital parent
What is digital parenting?
Deborah MacNamara, child-development counselor and faculty member at the Neufeld Institute, writes that “the role of adults in a digital world is to buffer against the technological turn.” She says that children need the adults in their lives to help them navigate technology.
But how do we guide our children? Sarah Werle Kimmel, founder of Family Tech and digital parenting coach, says it starts with three things.
- Manage the device
- Monitor messages
- Filter content
Managing the device means activating the parental controls built into the phone or tablet. Then, when your child is old enough to start typing messages and sharing their own content, you can outsource monitoring and filtering to a parental controls app, such as Smart Family. But the hardest—or the easiest?—part starts with talking to your kids.
Can we talk?
Elizabeth Milovidov, an internet safety expert, says, “The best part is that you already have the most important skill in the mix—the ability to listen and ensure an open dialogue with your child.”
This is solid advice, especially if you have any hints that something’s bothering them—because, believe it or not, your kid might find it easier to confess a problem to a bunch of strangers on the internet than to approach you, their loving parent.
One way to start is to get everybody’s expectations down together on paper. If you’re interested in drawing up a digital contract with your kids, expect some resistance. Try to get them involved in the process, share reasons for each rule and negotiate the terms together. The Family Online Safety Institute has two great contracts—for kids under 13 and one for those over 13—that you can print out, sign together and stick on the fridge.
Getting on the same page is no easy task when you have kids at different ages and stages. This “Age-Based Guide” does a nice job of running through stages of the typical tech in each age group’s environment, and how those parental controls need to change as they grow up.
What’s your digital parenting style?
Parenting styles generally fall into one of three categories, according to “Parents: Reject Technology Shame.” Based on how parents limit and guide their child’s screen time, they can be considered enablers, limiters or mentors.
- Enablers give free rein.
- Limiters minimize access.
- Mentors actively guide their kids on how to use technology and the internet.
The mentoring approach, writes the article’s author Alexandra Samuel, “can actually sustain a family long term, from the time baby first lays her hands on a touch screen all the way until she heads off for college.”
A digital mentor talks about how to use technology and the internet responsibly; researches devices, programs and apps; shares information; enrolls their kids in tech classes or camps; shows their kids how they (the parent) use tech themselves; and plays online games with them.
In other words, don’t just let your kids surf the internet; make it your goal to be actively engaged but not overly involved.
If the expert opinions and terms leave your head spinning, don’t worry. It might help to remember that these digital spaces are extensions of everyday life. Digital parenting is not meant to replace regular parenting, it’s an extension of how you parent your child in real life.
You’re doing great
Follow whatever parenting advice you find helpful—and most of all, trust your own intuition and let it guide you. Chances are, dear reader, you’re doing fine.
Whatever you decide digital parenting means to you, Smart Family can help.