To some parents, the statement that “Limiting technology use may put your child in danger” seems counter-intuitive. Those of us who take steps to limit our children’s technology use do so because we’re aware of the risks involved in being online. We don’t want our children staring at screens all day, and we know that too much screen time can lead to physical, mental and emotional issues.
But limiting technology use may end up achieving the opposite result than what we’re trying to achieve.
The Three Digital Parenting Styles
As with any other aspect of parenting, there are many different approaches to how we approach our children’s use of technology. Generally speaking, in terms of digital parenting there are three main styles we fall into, as follows.
Digital enablers are parents who allow their children unrestricted access to the internet. Given the fact that children are tech-savvy from a young age, these parents believe their children can figure out their online world using their own common sense and initiative. The children are trusted to do the right thing and to use the internet to their advantage, for example educational purposes.
Digital enablers are quite relaxed in terms of how many devices there are as well as what can be seen on those devices. Parental controls are not used, as enablers believe these will restrict their child’s ability to learn, and may also have a negative effect on the parent/child relationship.
As you might suspect it’s most common for parents of teens to be digital enablers.
Many of the parents I meet with who have younger children fall into the category of digital limiters. A digital limiter is the polar opposite of a digital enabler. These parents limit device and technology use as much as possible. Being well aware of the mountain of inappropriate content online, digital limiters make good use of parental controls and don’t allow their children to play violent games or to use social media networks.
Digital limiters are aware of the need for children to socialise face-to-face with their friends and peers, to have regular physical exercise, to spend time outdoors and to enjoy creative activities. They are often frustrated when all their children want to do is play games online. Sound familiar?!
The third style of digital parenting includes those parents who are digital mentors. There’s obviously a wide gap between digital enablers and digital limiters, and digital mentors fall somewhere in between this space.
The key belief of a digital mentor is that mentoring is better than monitoring as far as their child’s use of the internet goes. They may still use some parental controls, particularly if their child is not yet in their teens, and their children are well aware that the controls are there and why.
Digital mentors are aware that they can’t hide their child from the internet, so their focus is on teaching their children how to be smart and resilient online. They are involved in what their child is doing online without feeling the need to oversee everything they do. Screen time rules are agreed on in advance and regular conversations about online safety take place.
Where Do You Fit In?
Digital enablers and digital limiters are on the extreme ends of the scale for digital parenting styles, with plenty of room in the middle for digital mentors. There are three obvious questions that come up as a result of the above:
- Where do you fit in?
- Where do you WANT to fit in?
- WHAT do you need to do to get there?
The Safest Place To Be
As you may have figured out, the ideal digital parenting style is that of a digital mentor. There are several reasons for this.
While the digital enabler style may seem easy and less time consuming for parents, and possibly more appropriate even as children reach their teens with a high desire for privacy, this approach isn’t safe for children of any age. The fact is that the risks inherent in being online are very real, such as cyber bullying, predators, inappropriate content, sexting, poor social media use etc.
Social media etiquette alone is a huge topic and will not come naturally to your children. It’s a learned behaviour, no different to using table manners or basic manners. Sadly, all too often the mistakes so easily and innocently made on social media can cause immeasurable pain and heartache.
The digital enabler approach also doesn’t set boundaries for what children can see or how much time they can spend there. It’s much easier to set appropriate ground rules at the start than to try to fix a bad habit once it’s entrenched.
What’s Wrong With The Digital Limiter Approach?
Interestingly, the digital limiter strategy often causes more harm than the digital enabler approach. How can that be? Keep reading!
Firstly, the digital limiter approach is unrealistic. It doesn’t take into account that although technology use may be limited in the home, it will still happen at school and elsewhere. Not all families share your ideal so your child will be exposed to things online through their friend’s devices and at other people’s houses. This will be out of your control and will happen whether you like it or not, and often sooner than you think.
Secondly, because the children of digital limiters know that you don’t want them being online, and their need to be online (often due to peer pressure) is strong, they’ll see no other option than to hide their internet use from you. Now they’re online without your guidance – the one thing they desperately need! And they can’t come to you for help when they need it for fear of being in trouble.
As a result, the research says that children of digital limiters are the most likely to:
- Watch porn (although at some point most children will do this)
- Post rude or hostile comments online, and
- Try to impersonate peers online
How To Be A Digital Mentor
Digital mentoring is a great ideal but it may not be as easy as it seems (that’s if it seems easy at all!). It involves opening up the lines of communication and having regular conversations that you may not be comfortable having. It involves a lot of time and involvement in your children. And it requires a reasonable amount of knowledge of the behaviour you want your children to emulate online.