Perfect digital parenting doesn’t exist

I’m stating the obvious – that perfect digital-age parenting doesn’t exist – but let me explain why it doesn’t. Writer Heather Havrilesky got me thinking about this with her commentary “The ‘Mommy’ Problem” in the New York Times this weekend. She focuses on mothers (since our culture does so much) and on offline parenting. I’ll add the digital part. She writes that “the current culture demands that every mother be all in, all the time…. We are outclassed at every turn. We are outspent and out-helicoptered and outnumbered.”

And we see that too much where digital parenting’s concerned too. For as long as I can remember in my 15+ years of following tech parenting, the online wellbeing/risk/safety/whatever discourse has been suggesting that if we only just filter, monitor more, have our kids sign mobile contracts, pass laws and generally exert “parental control,” tech or otherwise, our kids will be safe online. But that messaging is entirely aimed at engaged parents, and…

“There’s too much pressure, on parents in general and mothers in particular, to keep our kids away from corn syrup and bullies and industrially farmed beef while introducing them to chapter books and charcoal drawings and parasailing,” as Havrilesky writes. “I am not interested in hearing theories on what gave your 5-year-old such a premature grasp of quadratic equations, or about the countless benefits of living in Berlin for your now-German-speaking, bicycle-riding, train-hopping spawn.”

There’s too much pressure on parents to handle the digital part of our children’s and family lives as well as the offline parts. Not that there should be more pressure on any other sector, but there are five things wrong with this picture:

  1. Engaged parents. Despite the ridiculous amount of pressure on engaged parents and the stress that can cause, their children are probably going to stay safe online (with the occasional social struggles that are found in and usually directly related to offline ones). Their children will probably turn out just fine (though probably with a blend of their definitions and their families’ values) for the very reason that their parents are engaged.
  2. At-risk youth. There’s a whole swath of kids in our society who aren’t lucky enough to have the kind of parents who actually feel this pressure. I don’t know what percentage of youth are at risk or vulnerable and without supportive family environments – a sociologist in another country told me about 15%, which is a disturbingly high percentage – but these are the kids who are most at risk online and on mobiles as well. Fifteen years of online-safety and digital-parenting messaging, some of it useful for engaged parents, has not been aimed at the parents and caregivers of at-risk youth, and there has not been enough focus on training the social workers, counselors and healthcare providers who care for these youth in social media – the media and technologies so integral to their clients’ lives. [The National Center on Homelessness and Poverty reported in 2004 that 39% of Americans under 18 were homeless, in 2012 reported that every year 1.6 million 12-to-17-year-olds experiences homelessness without a parent or guardian, and are definitely online, according to Lee Fox, who has trained professionals who work with them. A just-released University of Sydney study of homelessness in Australia found that 95% of participants had a mobile phone.]
  3. The “parental control” problem. Messaging over-focused on parents attributes unrealistic control to them in a media environment that can’t even really be controlled by governments, regulators, laws and other mechanisms that had a lot of control over media in the mass media era of the past 400+ years. Parents’ control always mapped to children’s development to an extent, but now it really does. Parents still have control over the littlest children’s media practices for developmental reasons – until kids are able to create and discover workarounds (which is very individual; some kids aren’t interested). And control doesn’t just depend on personality and child development; it’s increasingly distributed, because this user-driven media environment puts more and more emphasis on self-regulation. If anything, the pressure on parents is to help their kids develop that – as well as resilience (which research says goes hand-in-hand with risk), ethics and social skills. None of which is new or purely “digital,” right?
  4. Disrespect for youth. Aiming so much “consumer education” at parents is, to me, disrespectful of young digital media users. At least it fails to factor in the other half of the parenting equation: the kid, right? Messaging based on parental concerns and worst-case scenarios (themselves often extrapolated from the worst criminal cases) has little to do with your child’s experience in digital media. It’s created at 30,000 feet, and to date much of it hasn’t been evidence-based (see this). But I say it’s disrespectful only because it doesn’t factor in your child’s own life and perspective. Solutions to digital problems have to do that because digital experiences are as individual as your kid is and because we’re now in a user-driven media environment, not a mass-media one. Back in the days of Saturday morning cartoons, generalizations about kids’ media experiences had more credibility because the vast majority of kids were consuming the same media. Not now, with media more an outgrowth of their everyday lives – and shared and produced as well as consumed.
  5. Non-digital experts. Just like there’s no such thing as perfect parenting or super parents, there’s no such thing as perfect digital parenting. I guess there are people who bill themselves as parenting experts, so you’ll find people who market themselves as digital parenting experts too. But frankly – after communicating with the child in question as much as possible – I’d rather talk with a psychologist, family therapist or pediatrician who has a kid who uses Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, is a gamer, follows the social media research as well as the mental health literature, or who has consciously folded digital practices into his or her practice than someone who specializes in “digital parenting.” And that’s only if I feel digital media really is a big part of the question I’d consult with them about. Why? Because “digital” is so individual and so deeply embedded in everything else now. Also – as academic research showed late in the last decade – it’s what’s going on in a child’s head (his/her psychosocial makeup) and home and school environments that are better predictors of online risk or safety than any technology the child uses.

So we parents need to cut ourselves some slack. Don’t worry about being “out-helicoptered” because helicoptering works less in media, even, than it does in life; there are too many workarounds to all the hovering and monitoring, and oppressive hovering makes workarounds even more attractive. Besides, how do kids learn self-control if always controlled by someone else, and how do they learn to navigate and assess risk when parents try to remove it from their lives?

More research will emerge about parenting in a digital age, and that’s great; it’ll be helpful to learn more about and from our peers. It might give us some ideas, fresh options and comfort that we’re not alone in figuring this out. But there are two things just as important at this point in the digital age (if not more so): 1) Get the care providers and educators of at-risk youth training in social media, the media embedded in their clients’ lives, that can inform these professionals’ prevention and intervention work and 2) get social-emotional learning into every school, so that all children, with or without engaged parents, can benefit from the skills that help them grow up well in a hyper-public, hyper-connected age.

Related links

  • About “homeless” youth using social media, in an interview, youth culture consultant Lee Fox cites a study by Eric Rice at USC’s School of Social Work: Rice found that, yes, youth were using social media to connect with drug-dealers, johns, gang members and so on at a much faster rate and easier rate, “but the ground-breaking part of his study, was that he also discovered that the social networks helped educate homeless youth about HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. So if the kids discussed love online, they were less likely to engage in ‘exchange sex’ (which is sex for drugs, housing, money or other favors). And most significantly, the homeless youth were *more likely* [emphasis hers] to get tested for HIV and STIs if they saw a discussion about it from other members of their online community. So in essence these social networks – just like street networks — are creating ‘trusted’ spaces.” [Here‘s that brand-new University of Sydney study on homeslessness I mentioned above.]
  • Author Warren Blumenfeld at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, on adultism, with a number of references to scholarship on the subject
  • A 2013 study about violent videogames and vulnerable youth which “found no evidence for increased bullying or delinquent behaviors among youth with clinically elevated mental health symptoms who also played violent video games”
  • “Challenging ‘Internet safety’ as a subject to be taught”
  • “All kids deserve the safety & other benefits of social-emotional learning”
  • About adopting the public health field’s “levels of prevention” for digital risk prevention and a pioneering 2011 report in the UK on serving and safeguarding vulnerable youth
  • “Balancing external with internal Internet safety ‘tools'”