Safer Internet Day: new research on the challenges of parenting in the digital age

Parenting is full of challenges and often a balancing act between allowing our children the freedom to explore, experience and learn, and keeping them safe at the same time. Our increasingly connected world adds to this complexity, and parents aren’t wrong to have some genuine concerns when it comes to their child’s technology use and digital footprint.

A recent survey of 1,000 Canadian parents of children between ages 8 and 17, funded by TELUS, revealed the top concerns of parenting in a digital world. According to the research, 58% of parents worry about the amount of time their children spend online. Parents were also concerned about online content (64%), stranger-danger (50%), and exactly what their child is up to online (46%).

Screen time related concerns may be due to the perceived risks associated with online activities, as well as the cost of being online. Time spent online can mean time spent not doing homework, physical activity or spending face-to-face quality time with family and friends.

Cyberbullying and sexting are also areas of concern, with 32% of parents worrying that their child is being cyberbullied and 30% worrying that their child is cyberbullying others. Similarly, 30% of parents are concerned that their child has received a sext, and 38% worry their child has sent a sext.

Conflicting attitudes: maximizing the benefits and minimizing risks of technology

While concerns about children in our digital society are common and justified, and even though 59% of the parents surveyed feel like technology negatively impacts their children’s lives, almost all of the parents surveyed (96%) acknowledge the benefits of technology. So, what’s a parent to do?

How can we enable our children to reap the rewards of technology while staying safe? How can we alleviate some of the anxiety associated with raising children in a digital world?

Technology is here to stay and is an integral part of children’s lives. However, to ease the worry around screen time, parents can set and enforce boundaries and healthy limits around tech use and actively engage with their children in their online activities. For younger children, you may need to take the lead in defining the rules about when and where technology is allowed, how much screen time is permitted and what online activities are acceptable. In contrast, with older children, you can have a conversation about healthy technology use and jointly discuss and agree on family rules that govern screen time. As part of your discussion, be careful to consider different types of screen time as not all online activities are equal. For instance, you may be more lenient when it comes to allowing extra time to complete a homework assignment online, than you would when it comes to giving extra time for yet another round of their favourite online game.

To alleviate concerns around what your child gets up to online, including the content they access and individuals they connect with, we recommend taking time to learn about technology and your child’s online habits. According to the study, parents believe they are skilled in using technology for themselves, but acknowledge that their children know more than they do when it comes to technology. Don’t be afraid to learn from your child by engaging them in a conversation about their online activity and having them show you what they do. Ask them to show you what they do online, what apps they like to use and why. Invite them to teach you how to play the online games they’re interested in and play the games with them.  Explore some of their favourite YouTube channels together. Not only will you learn through the conversation and exploring the online environment together, but you will also uncover opportunities to teach and coach your child on safely navigating the internet, without being an expert yourself.

Parents need to be, and are, actively involved in their children’s digital lives

We would never expect children to learn how to ride a bike on their own. In much the same way, using technology requires parental guidance, support, and engagement. Children need to be coached on digital safety and tech-life balance, with parents taking an active role in understanding what their children are doing online. Not only can time spent together online be quality time, it can also help promote safe behaviours and protect youth from negative online behaviours.

Fostering positive communication and a healthy parent-child relationship is equally important. This sets the stage for children to feel comfortable in engaging parents for support, should something go awry online, for example encountering a cyberbullying situation.

Parents play a critical role in shaping youth’s experience with technology. It is promising to report on Safer Internet Day, that over half of parents surveyed are talking to their children about what they are doing online; 38% monitor their children’s online activities; and 25% of parents are going online with their kids. This is a good news story! – and one we can strengthen over time by regularly engaging youth in conversations about safe and responsible technology use and actively participating in their digital lives.

Download the full report, or book a TELUS Wise workshop to learn more about parenting in a digital world.