How to manage digital parenting effectively, is one that most parents are now asking. And it must be said, navigating the world of digital parenting is not an easy one! This post follows on from, How to Manage Screen Time Effectively with your Child. It looks at the opportunities digital media can give to our children and provides reliable recommendations to gain the greatest benefits and avoid the pitfalls.
The post is based on a paper produced by, A. Blum-Ross & S. Livingstone from the, London School of Economics and Political Science, (July 2016). My reason for focusing solely on their work was not only because a wide range of research was covered previously, but also because many parents will be able to relate to much of the content and be reassured by it. Also, and maybe more importantly, parents can benefit from their practical recommendations in managing their children’s use of digital media in a positive way.
In addition to this, it provides a fresh approach by focusing on the opportunities that media can provide, while at the same time acknowledging potential risks.
The aim of the research was to ask:
- How do parents manage their children’s use of digital media and which types of parental management has proven to be effective?
- What is the current advice for parents?
- What can be learnt from the current research and how should this guide the next generation of advice?
Statistics on screen time
There has been a wealth of research on the impact of screen time on children. One thing they all have in common and agree upon, is that children today are spending an awful lot more time in front of screens than they used to.
In the UK, the amount of time children are spending online has more than doubled. In 2005, 8-15 year olds were spending 6.2 hours a week online. In 2015, the average was 15 hours. Moreover, in 2014, 47% of 3-7 year olds were using tablets with internet access. In 2015, this rose to a whopping 61%.
(For more on statistics, see How to Manage Screen Time Effectively with Your Child).
How press reporting impacts parents
We are all probably familiar with the reporting of screen time in the press. It either seems to traumatise us with horror stories or puts parents on a guilt trip. Rarely, if ever, does it seem to set out to help parents and give practical, evidence-based advice.
The report notes how the press, not only focuses on the adverse effects with regard to children’s mental and physical health, but that it isn’t always clear if the research used takes account of whether other factors are at play.
Moreover, a common theme in the press is to ‘castigate’ parents for using screens as a ‘baby sitter’; or to report on how difficult it is to get your child off the screen. There have also been articles that end up parent ‘shaming’, by reporting on parents themselves being ‘addicted’ to digital media. The reports have mainly focused on the parents’ use of phones and how this can be detrimental to their ability to parent.
There is however, a small, but growing number of studies that are going against this type of parent shaming and noting the:
positive transformations that digital media have introduced for working parents,
the opportunities that technology presents for family fun and togetherness, and the potential benefits that screens might hold for children’s learning and engagement.
Digital Parenting: How parents manage screen time
The research looked at how parents ‘mediate’ their child’s use of digital media. The term, ‘mediate’, refers to the, different ways in which parents try to influence how and why their child use digital media.
Research has often focused on how parents have strived to reduce any potential risk of digital media by restricting their child’s time on screens. These risks can range from having an effect on cognitive development on younger children to the risks of bullying and ‘stranger danger’, for older children.
Some research however, has also shown that parental mediation can play an important role in supporting the benefits of digital media for children. These include:
Learning and creating. For example, supporting your child with literacy and numeracy, informational needs and academic achievement.
Connecting with others. This includes communicating with distant family and taking part in communities of support online.
Civic action and engagement. For example, joining community groups.
The paper notes however, that just like with the potential harms that digital media can bring, it isn’t a given that children will automatically benefit. It is the case that only a small, minority of children are fully able to access the full range of opportunities presented by digital media.
How can parents mediate and what works best?
The research showed that parents mediate through a combination of methods:
This includes the parent having direct and indirect conversations about things such as, what parents and children each enjoy. It also includes parents being involved in down loading apps for younger children and playing games together.
Having family rules around the use of media. These can be time-based (how long they are allowed on a device), conditional-based (only have screen time after homework is completed), place-based (no screens at meal times), or content based (e.g. no Snapchat).
Surveilling their children’s use of digital media, such as installing apps like, Find My Phone, to find out the physical location of their child, or/and requiring their child to share passwords to social media accounts.
This includes things such as: turning off routers at set times, using apps to restrict content or enabling, ‘child-safe modes’.
The research looked at these methods in terms of whether they were, ‘enabling’ or ‘restricting’. They placed active mediation and monitoring as enabling and rules and parental controls as restrictive.
What mediation methods work according to the research?
The paper drew a number of conclusions in terms of which methods work according to the research. These are:
- Parents who heavily restrict their children’s access to screen time and the internet, tend to have children who are exposed to fewer risks but also, fewer opportunities for learning and engagement.
- Parents who heavily restrict often do not include their children in decision making in the use of digital media. This results in a missed opportunity to, build a sense of trust and ownership over media use within the family.
- Context specific rules, such as, no phones at the dinner table, are more difficult to enforce than activity constraints, such as no Snapchat.
- Complete bans on activities such as using social media, can make young people feel isolated form their peers or not able to access support or information.
- There has been little evidence that using technical restrictions on their own is effective in reducing a child’s risk of being harmed online. This is probably due to the fact that children often find a way around it.
- Although parental restrictions mean that children engage with digital media less, it may also mean that these children may not get the, chance to explore the media’s possibilities or to develop the skills needed to benefit.
They conclude therefore, that although active mediation is associated with positive outcomes, on it’s own, it does not reduce exposure to risk.
How to manage digital parenting: 10 tips
The paper makes a number of useful recommendations for parents on how to manage digital parenting effectively. They are:
- Talking with your child about who they are interacting with and monitoring their digital whereabouts, is more effective than time or content restrictions, in reducing bullying and harassment.
- A parent’s own digital skills are important, as the more skilled they are, the more confident they will be in mediating their child’s internet use.
- Parents are role models to their children. Just like in other areas, a child is likely to do what their parents do. A parent who balances digital use with other activities, are more likely to have children who do the same.
- When parents jointly engage with media, their children enjoy and learn more.
- Parents can be resources in helping children learn through and about digital media.
- There is not a one size fit all. Parents need to adjust their methods according to the age, interests and needs of their children. Also to remember that from infants to older teenagers, support and encouragement is needed.
- Understand that a restrictive approach may serve to avoid risks but at the same time limit a child’s opportunities. It is generally preferable to try instead to build children’s resilience so risk does not become harm.
- Parents need to be aware of high quality, age-appropriate media that will support their child to learn and create, and that families can enjoy together as well as individually.
- Parents should not feel the pressure to ‘keep up’ with others. There are as many approaches to digital media as there are families.
- Parents do not need to assume that their child’s use of digital media is a problem. Instead of putting limits on screen time to an arbitrary figure, the report recommends that parents look at the screen context, content and connections by asking themselves the following questions:
Is my child physically healthy and sleeping enough?
Is my child connecting socially with family and friends (in any form)?
Is my child engaged with and achieving in school?
Is my child pursuing interests and hobbies (in any form)?
Is my child having fun and learning in their use of digital media?
The study argues that if the answer to the above questions are more or less, ‘yes’, then parents should consider whether their fears around digital media use are well founded. If however, the answers are more or less, ‘no’, then a parent will need to, place regulations and restrictions in order to address problematic use.
The authors argue that it is time for digital use to move beyond a heavy focus on the risks and look more to the opportunities it brings. To move away form the dominant message to parents that their, main responsibility is to limit and control. Instead they see that screen time now:
includes time for learning, entertainment, a conduit to relationships and information, a place for creativity…as well as a source of problems and risk.
Moreover, they argue that what matters most is that parents and their children can evaluate and discriminate together among different media content and activities according to what they can offer.