My alarm went off at 6.30am as usual, heralding a new day. I fumbled for the phone so I could swipe the screen; the slumber function would give me a welcome ten more minutes in bed before the day began. As well as waking me in the morning, my smartphone will be my trusted companion throughout the day.
Dressed for this season in chic pink, she will tell me what appointments I have, and when, where and even how to get there. She will help me decide whether to take a raincoat or sunglasses, and whether we need a plan B for tomorrow night’s barbecue. I can message friends and, in the unlikely event that my children have consented to a reciprocal arrangement, I can track their whereabouts on my finder app. My phone sees me through the day, and the very last thing I do at night is plug her in by my bed and reset the alarm to 6.30am, ready to begin all over again.
Technology is so much part of 21st century living that it’s difficult for us to imagine life without it. It has impacted every aspect of our lives, including the family and especially the way we parent. Less than ten years ago, the advice given to parents wanting to protect their children was to put the family computer in the living room so that internet use could be easily monitored. Enter Steve Jobs and the rise of the smartphone, and this advice has been rendered obsolete. Digital technology is advancing at such speed that it is taking time for society to adapt, but adapt it will. As parents, though, time is a luxury we don’t have. Our children need our help and guidance now, not in five, ten or 15 years’ time, when it will be too late.
From their infancy, our role as parents is to teach our children life skills, particularly those that will keep them safe. We teach them how to tie shoelaces, cross the road and swim. We have these skills ourselves, so we can pass them on. But when it comes to digital technology, many of us feel our children know more than we do and we have no idea how to stay a step ahead. Most parents today will be what experts call ‘digital visitors’. We use technology as a tool, going online to check the train times, do a grocery shop or send an email. In contrast, most young people are ‘digital residents’. Digital technology is an integrated part of their lives. As visitors, even if we digest a digital dictionary and learn acronyms such as pcm (please call me) or, more importantly, pos (parent over shoulder), we’ll never be as at home in the digital world as those who live there. It involves a different attitude and approach to life.
The pros of technology
The digital age brings many advantages and wonderful opportunities. Long journeys with bored children and endless games of I-spy are now a thing of the past. Learning opportunities are so much greater; no longer limited to how many books are in the home. Harassed parents supervising homework no longer have to trawl through encyclopaedias for information about the Battle of Hastings or the reproductive cycle of the dragonfly. There are apps for preschoolers to learn colours and numbers, and apps with womb-like noises to encourage babies to sleep. Digital technology also has huge advantages for children with additional needs, helping them develop skills and the ability to learn. We can connect with friends across the city and families around the world. (Our four children are grown now, but we have a family WhatsApp group, which has proved invaluable. I now know more about our children’s lives than I ever did when we were all living under the same roof!) And what parent hasn’t breathed a sigh of relief when putting a child in front of a screen during the ‘happy hour’ - 5pm to 6pm - when blood sugar is running low, sibling rivalry is at its peak, and the pasta is not yet on the table?
The potential pitfalls
There are many advantages to technology, and as parents it’s good to embrace them and not fall into the trap of looking back at our own childhood through rose-tinted spectacles, trying to create something that’s out of kilter with the culture our children are growing up in.
But while embracing the advantages, we’ll be all too aware of the many challenges. Eric Schmidt, chair of Google, once said: "If you have a child, you’ll notice they have two states: asleep or online." Parents responding to a recent Care for the Family survey put time on screens at the top of the list of their concerns about digital technology. Many family arguments seem focused on this issue - from parents tearing their hair out with a 3-year-old having an ‘iPaddy’ on being told his screen time is over, to dealing with the frustration of trying to talk to a teenager whose phone needs to be surgically removed from her hand.
Trying to set boundaries can wear down even the most resilient of parents, but they are vital because they are about giving our children security and safety. Particularly with younger children, it is vital that we set some firm, clear boundaries in this area in line with our family values, which may mean taking a hit in the popularity stakes!
Apart from the effect on stressed-out parents, hours glued to a screen also impacts the children themselves. Schools report that many children are tired in the morning and schoolwork is affected because of electronic games being played long into the night. And the always-on culture of social media is having an effect on children’s sleep patterns. The growing problem of obesity - which has been called ‘the new smoking’ - has many complex causes, but the effects of a sedentary lifestyle on 11-year-olds who are spending more time indoors on screens and less time exploring the great outdoors have to be contributing factors.
Along with worries about screen time, many parents are rightly concerned about the relentless pressure on children of social media and the ‘selfie’ culture. It has always been the case that an important part of growing up involves young people flexing their muscles, discovering who they are and establishing their identity. The difference for our children today is that they must do this in a media-saturated world that not only judges them on their appearance but presents a distorted view of reality. Society feeds them the lie that they are what they own, their value is in what they look like, and their worth lies in the number of likes they have on Facebook.
Added to this are the challenges of sexting, pornography, internet addiction, grooming and online bullying, to name but a few. When we were young, the school bully stayed in the playground at the end of the day. For today’s children there is no escape. 24/7 technology means that the bully follows them home on the bus and during the walk home; they lurk as homework is done and during the evening meal; they are even there at night as the phone pings under the duvet.
And again, while there’s nothing new about pornography, today’s children are the first generation to have access anywhere, any time, to unregulated free content. And it starts so young. Parents may be shocked to know that the average age of first exposure to porn is 11 years old. Children often come across it while doing their homework.
A way forward
While the dangers may seem overwhelming, the good news is that there is so much we can do as parents to not only protect our children, but help them make the most of what the digital world has to offer. When they are little, we put sharp knives and bleach out of their reach. In the same way, one of the first things we can do is to use passwords, filters and parental controls to keep our children safe online.
Many families have found it helpful to sit down together and create a ‘family media agreement’ about online and screen use. These are age-appropriate guidelines in line with their family values that everyone (including parents!) signs up to. Get some drinks and favourite snacks and make it a fun experience to talk through the issues together with your children. It’s obviously easier the younger they are, but even the most combative teenager may cooperate if they think they have a voice and there’s something in it for them. If possible, frame it as what is allowed rather than a list of ‘don’ts’. For families with a range of ages the guidelines will need to be on a scale according to age. Good things to include might be:
What devices can be used and when? At mealtimes? Just before bed? Late at night? Bedrooms or not? (With teenagers, not permitting any use in their bedroom may be unrealistic as they do need some privacy, but the point is not to encourage isolation).Are social media sites allowed and if so, which ones?What information can be or shouldn’t be shared online?Are any particular websites off limits?What should your child do if they encounter something scary or that makes them feel uncomfortable online?
The agreement isn’t a magic bullet and writing it down may be too formal for some, but part of its value is simply in sitting down together and talking these things through.
Boundaries around internet use at home are vital, especially with younger teenagers, but they only go so far. What about when our children are out and about, when we aren’t there? The sobering truth is that unless we equip them to deal with the issues, they will only be as safe as the least protected child they know.
Ultimately, our God-given task as parents isn’t about raising children or even teenagers; it’s about raising ad