The trials and tribulations of being a digital parent (Part 2)

Smartphone by Rami Al-zaya

A few months ago, I wrote about how difficult it is being a parent of pre-teen children in the age of smartphones:

Parenting is hard, especially with your eldest child. You’re making it up as you go along, especially in areas that no one has a lot of expertise. On the one hand, I don’t like censorship and spying – which is why we’re switching from BT to A&A for our broadband next week. But, on the other hand, there’s an innocence to childhood that needs to be protected, especially when we’re putting such powerful devices into such small hands. My son needs to know we’re looking out for him.

I mentioned how we had decided to use the McAfee Safe Family app to limit the hours at which his smartphone was available to him, and to see what he’s been up to. In conjuction with Norton App Lock, which limits the apps he’s able to access, I’ve found the Safe Family app to be extremely effective. However, I’m questioning whether we’ve got the overall approach right.

It might be worth adding some background information at this point. As a teenager growing up in the 1990s, I used to go on the internet without my parents permission, signing up for a Compuserve or AOL account with my parents’ credit card, and then cancelling the trial before the end of the 30 days. It was dial-up internet access back in those days, so I kept the calls less than 60 minutes long — which meant they wouldn’t be itemised — and I went on the internet at times that I knew the rest of the family wouldn’t use the phone.

Why do I bring this up? Because my son is trying as hard as he can to circumvent the controls we’ve put in place. He’s found ways to do this, perhaps by using my PIN code, I’m not sure. I have to admire his effort, but it raises a wider issue about digital parenting. If your child is sneaking around, then there’s obviously a problem and the ‘solution’ isn’t working. As Mimi Ito quite rightly points out, “limiting screen time without addressing deeper problems is not likely to lead to positive outcomes”.

The difficulty is that this generation of young parents are on the front line here. We’re the first ones to have to deal with screens everywhere. At the same time as we’re warned about the dangers, we’re also exhorted to prepare our offspring for jobs of the future. Mimi Ito again:

It’s natural to hope that controlling access to a device might make our kids smart and well-adjusted, but if only it were that simple. Maybe it made more sense when TV was the only screen, but given the wide range of activities that screens are part of these days, a focus on screen time is too blunt an instrument.

There’s a very specific problem, almost a paradox at the heart of digital parenting. Although Mimi Ito was a parent to a teenage daughter before the explosion in smartphones and tablets, the way she describes the problem is spot-on:

My daughter taught me this lesson when she was twelve. One summer, I was irritated with the hours she was spending watching TV shows on YouTube. After I started clocking her screen time, she quickly developed a strategy. She would use her limited screen time on what I considered the most inane uses of the computer and I would inevitably give her more time for more “productive” screen activities like learning new skills or creating digital media.

We’ve witnessed this with our son: the more we limit his screen time and access to devices – either in response to sneaky behaviour, or family priorities – the more he’ll use the reduced amount of time to play games that are in no way constructive.

It’s difficult. I know that what we should be doing is sitting alongside our children, exploring the digital world together. But that’s just doesn’t seem possible sometimes. And, just as children tend to the question “what did you do at school today?” really tedious, so they don’t particularly want a conversation about what they’ve been up to on their tablets.

One thing that’s missed when dealing with digital parenting at a macro level is the issue of personality. I think there may also be gender differences too, but I’ve got too small a sample to be able to tell. Some people have more addictive personalities than others.

So, we’re caught in a Catch-22 situation: on the one hand, we’d quite like to try the ‘unlimited screen time’ approach, and see what happens. On the other, we’re in the midst of sanctioning our child for using his devices at times we’ve specifically tried to block.

Answers on a postcard, please! Thankfully, the summer holidays are approaching, meaning that we’ve got an opportunity to try being a bit more relaxed about all of this…

Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash