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Kids & tech: Parenting well in today's digital age

Updated: Apr 22, 2023

It’s all screens, keys, and device-driven 'entertainment'... let's find some balance.

If you were born around the mid-'80s, chances are you remember growing up playing Monopoly on weekends, ball games in the garden after school with a neighbour, and riding your bike whenever you could. If you're from that generation - and are now a parent - chances are your children will remember growing up in a digital age only.

Modern kids have never known a time when they couldn’t connect to the entire world via the internet. In fact, they probably spend more time online than anyone else - certainly more than their parents. Kids between the ages of 6 and 24 fall into a generation now being labeled 'post-millennial' or 'Gen-Z'. Gen-Z is a label given to those born between 1996 and 2014. It is the most diverse generation in global history. It is also the most digitally connected and smartphone-addicted generation. Gen-Zs were born after the internet was commercialised in 1995. They have no pre-internet memories. Each entered (or will enter) adolescence in the age of the smartphone, and for some, also a fully connected 'smart-home'.

Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, has written the most systematic study about Gen-Z. She ran the datasets, conducted the interviews, and has now voiced her concerns - first published in a feature article for the Atlantic, under the bombshell title “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”. The article was an excerpt from the book that soon followed, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy - and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

According to the study, Gen-Zs or iGen’ers spend less time working jobs, volunteering, engaging in student activities, and doing homework. The result: they’re spending massive amounts of time at home and online. They’re virtually never offline - driven to their devices by social promise, friendships, and relationships. But by far, the most concerning takeaway from Twenge’s research, and confirmed by others, is the spike in teen depression and suicide.

In 2019, it was estimated that one in seven adolescents experience mental health conditions. This amounts to an estimated 175 million adolescent boys and girls globally, an increase of about 4 million since 2000. These upticks are reflected in the massive rise of cyber-bullying, and sadly, the suicide rate.

How do we as a pre-internet generation of parents manage kids and tech?

Kids Playing VideogamesKids Playing Videogames

Being present

When it comes to parenting our children, there is no substitute for, well, being a good parent. Too often we as parents leave too much to schools and others, fail to be the examples our kids want and need us to be and establish the boundaries on a solid foundation at home. This is where and how we can shape and positively affect our children’s lives, especially their digital lives.

Strengthen the connection

Many children turn to their devices because it’s the only game in town. While it’s true that our 15-year-old may roll her eyes at us if we suggest a game of Monopoly, I can’t count the number of times that kids have privately confessed that their parents are always busy.

Youngsters who feel liked and enjoyed on a regular basis by parents who seek their company (not to remind them about homework but simply to hang out) are far more willing to unplug. Whether you concoct a new dessert together or challenge your son to a Connect Four championship, make time for real-world activities with your kids and they’ll be more willing to cooperate when it’s time to unplug.

Talk - and listen

Some kids complain of intolerable boredom when we suggest they turn off their tech. Others are afraid of what might be said behind their back on social media if they go offline. Encourage your kids to share their objections when you suggest that they engage with the 3D world, and then listen, without scolding, shaming, or giving unwanted advice.

Don’t be afraid to upset

Parents should be less fearful of their children. Yes, your kids may throw a fit if you tell them that six hours of non-stop video gaming is not an option, but children are comforted by parents who are willing to hold a line. Make peace with the likelihood that your children will sometimes be unhappy with your decisions. It’s okay if they think you’re the meanest parent who ever lived. Be kind and acknowledge their frustration, but don’t be afraid to set limits.

Setting boundaries on the use of new technology is important just in the same way as we set boundaries for children in every sense. The technology may be new but the principles have not changed. Unlimited and unsupervised access to smartphones can be a portal to some very serious risks and this strongly aligns with the growing concerns around the impact on children’s mental health. Children must be protected.

Be the example

It’s all well and good to suggest that our kids go and play outside. But how easy is it for you to resist the urge to check in one last time at work, or take a quick look at what your pals are up to on Facebook? If you spend hours every night in front of your screen or interrupt conversations with your kids when you get a text message, your kids aren’t going to take you very seriously when you extol the virtues of the digital world. Take a walk, pick up a book, or plunk yourself down in front of the piano. When your kids see you having the kind of fun that doesn’t require a plug or a battery, they’ll be more inclined to follow suit.

Monitoring your kids and tech

With the ever-increasing number of devices that kids use to connect, you simply can’t supervise every moment they’re online on your own. That’s where parental control services can help. This software gives you the ability to block unwanted web content, limit screen time, restrict the use of risky applications, and more. Basically, these services are a way to help keep your kids safer on their computers and mobile devices.

That said, parental control software is no substitute for good communication. If you don’t want your kids to visit unsafe, unsavoury, or inappropriate sites, talk to them about your concerns. We recommend that you also take the time to convince your older kids that you’ll respect their privacy while still monitoring their online actions, a promise you should strive to uphold. We prefer software that embraces this kind of collaborative approach, rather than apps that covertly spy on kids. If your kids see you as big brother, it’s a safe bet that they’ll find ways to outsmart you and evade even the most sophisticated systems. As tech addiction increasingly becomes a problem, it’s important to instill the value of good device habits in your children as well.

There are a number of parental control software out there, from Apple’s parental control tools to the industry-leading Qustodio, which can assist with everything from blocking apps entirely to setting time usage limits. When you get beyond the basics, parental control systems start to diverge, with standout features to track your child’s YouTube viewing history, check your child’s location, or even remotely lock down a device to force them to divert their attention. You’ll also find advanced versions of standard features. Qustodio has 29 filter categories and will block access to any website that falls under the classifications you select. These categories include topics like pornography, gambling, violence, drugs, alcohol, and religion. You can choose whether to block a category or alert yourself to an activity.

We hope this article helps you on your way to becoming a tech-positive parent - providing a more balanced and secure approach with your kids' devices in today’s digital age.

Good luck!

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