Parenting in the digital age: Research insights

A lot of insights into digital-age parenting have been surfacing in the research this year – so much good stuff, in fact, that I’m going to crunch it way down into brief snapshots and give you the links so you can find what’s relevant to you.

1. Tech parenting

Right up front in “Toward Predicting Youth Resistance to Internet Risk Prevention Strategies,” Sahara Byrne and Theodore Lee at Cornell University wrote in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media that “strategies resulting in the least disagreement from children include those that empower youth to protect themselves” and, interestingly, “legal consequences or suspension from school for people who misbehave online” (I wonder if the latter because more impersonal and palatable to teens than parental intervention). And communication difficulties in particular predicted disagreement and noncompliance from kids.

Byrne and Lee surveyed “a United States national sample of 456 parents” and children aged 10-16,” looking at “a wide range of Internet risk prevention strategies” and the young people’s attitudes toward each strategy. The authors found that “some strategies were met with less resistance [from kids] than others. Good parent-child communication is key, they found. “The more children reported it being hard to talk to their parents [about online issues], the more the disagreement over household strategies” (such as parental control technology, rules, monitoring, etc.). Interestingly, when they looked at parenting styles in relation to this communication, they found that “parents engaging in permissive style tended to report increased communicative difficulty with their children about problems that may occur online, while a more authoritarian parenting style was related to reports of easier communication,” both parents and teens reported.

The bottom line of this study: “Children who report ease of communication with their parents tend to put up with any efforts parents make to protect them.” What the authors suggest should be looked at in future research is “whether, if children view their parents as savvy Internet users, they may find it easer to talk to them about their experiences online” because, they conclude, “it is vital that parents learn how to negotiate their children’s media use in constructive ways.”

2. Shared guidance: Parents plus product design

For “Social and Technical Challenges in Parenting Teens’ Social Media Use,” Sarita Yardi and Amy Bruckman at the Georgia Institute of Technology interviewed 16 parents to “surface different approaches to ‘technoparenting’ [managing their children's technology use] … and explore ways of supporting [the parents] to do it better.” In addition to parenting styles, their conversations with the parents covered norms and expectations for children’s tech use (including duration, frequency, and time of day), parental restrictions, parent-child communication levels, use of tech monitoring and management tools, division of responsibility, and the politics of technoparenting (including around privacy and social presence). One of Bruckman and Yardi’s takeaways from the interviews was that “in the same way that parents dictate children’s sleeping, eating, and playing patterns, there is a need for deep guidance of technology use. For children, we want to support parents’ desire to monitor and manage their children’s social media use. For teens, we want to support authoritative parenting practices while respecting teens’ growing personal domains.”

They’re saying this not just with an eye to the development of parenting best practices but also to the designing of “digital systems” that I think would include features in social-media products and services – in other words, what media companies design. They propose that “a conceptual digital window” for parents be developed based on the idea of “social translucence” rather than transparency (an idea developed by scholars they cite for workplace rather than household interaction). “Social translucence,” Yardi and Bruckman write, “is an approach … that emphasizes making social information visible within the system without making information fully transparent…. We want to surface visibility to parents without compromising agency and autonomy that children need to develop into self-dependent adults.” [This seems similar to the design of the UnitedParents monitoring service I wrote about last March.]

3. ‘Intensive parenting’ not entirely helpful

In “Over-Parenting,” authors Gala Bernstein and Zyl H. Triger argue in the University of California, Davis, Law Review that “intensive parenting” – including monitoring of activities, academic performance, and reputations through tech and the Internet – has become a “socio-technological trend” that is not universal (it’s “class, race, ethnicity, and culture dependent”), and its norms should not be incorporated reflexively into the law, which “already plays an important role in enhancing the [intensive parenting] trend.” They argue that its enforcement “in a multicultural society would increase existing biases in the child welfare system and force Intensive Parenting on those who may be financially unable or ideologically unwilling to adopt it.”

4. Talk more, monitor less

Psychology professor Larry Rosen of California State University, Dominguez Hills, seemed to reinforce some of his colleagues’ findings above in a plenary talk at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in August: “Parents who try to secretly monitor their kids’ activities online are wasting their time,” the APA’s press release quotes him as saying. “Your child will find a workaround in a matter of minutes. You have to start talking about appropriate technology use early and often and build trust, so that when there is a problem, whether it is being bullied or seeing a disturbing image, your child will talk to you about it.” Rosen presented examples of how social networking can both help and harm kids – check out the press release for those bullet points.

Related links

* Further insight: Children with lower resiliency or greater psychological problems are less likely to be helped by their parents (though they experience more risk online) than children who aren’t psychologically disadvantaged, said EU Kids Online pan-European research project’s director Sonia Livingstone in a videotaped presentation recently (starting at at about 31:30 min. into this video). “Their parents tend to lack confidence in their ability to help them.” My post about the project’s final report – which found that only 12% of young people aged 9-16 Europe-wide had experienced something upsetting online in the past year – is here).
* And there was a whole parenting section in the Pew study on teen social networking released this month at the Family Online Safety Institute’s annual conference. Here’s a video in which I ask Pew’s Amanda Lenhart a little about parents and their teen social networkers.
* I think we knew this: “For Kids, Self-Control Factors Into Future Success” at NPR station WBUR in Boston. And now, in a user-driven, always-on media environment, self-directed civility and safety work a lot better than the other-directed kinds, such as “parental control” (with or without tech parental controls).
*How teens view the drama” and “Parenting & the digital drama overload” of March 2010
*We need to work out the social norms of social media: Why?
* “One family’s tech policy”
*Digital citizenship reality check: Notes from Nairobi’s IGF” and “Next step: Crowd-source digital citizenship


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