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The Digital World and Family Life

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Smartphones, computers, streaming TV, smart speakers and other internet connected devices are very much a part of today’s homes. So how do you maximise their benefits and minimise potential harm?

Digital media can enhance family life

Contrary to many news articles, research by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)[1] has shown that overall, digital connectivity is enhancing family life, not undermining it. Families are not only communicating at home in the evenings, but also online during the day. They eat meals and enjoy outings together, as well as watching TV or playing video games together. Children are learning at school, then using online apps and the internet to enhance that learning through activities at home.

Focusing on content rather than time

The LSE research shows that screen time remains a concern for parents. After sleep and behaviour issues, it is a primary source of conflict in the home. But the report’s author suggests that rather than focusing on overall screen time, parents need more help with ‘when and why particular digital activities help or harm their child and what to do about it’.

Laying a good foundation

Like most parenting challenges, keeping communication lines open with your child is vitally important. Many commentators suggest forming a technology use agreement[2] as a family. It can include what content or sites are appropriate, whether permission is required to use the internet, how much internet use should be allowed without supervision, whether phones are allowed in bedrooms at night, whether you have technology-free zones, such as the dining table or main living area, and so on. While some rules will vary depending on the user’s age, be prepared to include yourselves as parents in the agreement.

Get to know your child’s online world

If your child is using the internet or apps to help with homework, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be involved. Use internet research time to improve their critical thinking skills and to talk about the quality of the source, author bias and so on.

Teaching online social skills

If your child is old enough to join social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, make sure you know how the apps work and how to keep safe. There is evidence[3] that younger parents who are digital natives are much stricter about their children’s social media use than parents who are unfamiliar with these platforms. The best way is to use the apps yourself and seek out the safe-use guides provided by the app’s creators. Simple tips like keeping their account private and not accepting ‘friend’ invitations from people they don’t know are a great start.

Set a good example

The way you use your digital technology will have a strong influence on your child’s use. So take an honest look at the example you’re setting. Research by American psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair showed how frustrated most children of all ages are with their parents’ use of technology[4]. Parents who are often busy with phone calls, emails and social media can make kids feel like they come second to everyone else.

For parents, the challenge is to set a good example and to stay in touch with their child’s online world, so they can provide timely advice and support. It should not become a secret world where only youngsters go, driven by peer pressure and fear of missing out.



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