Supporting Children, Youth, and Families in Greater Vancouver since 1990
parenting in the digital age

Parenting in the Digital Age

It can be hard to wrap our minds around this new digital world in which children are developing and learning. iPads, iPhones, smart TV’s and social networks were not the childhood pastimes of today’s parents.

It’s not surprising that issues related to the use of these devices and social media have accelerated for young parents who are left with mixed messages from experts. In addition, parents are have no clear answers to questions about when to allow access to a smartphone, and how long is too long on a video game or app. Can my 2-year-old play on an IPad? Will this hinder or help their development? Should my 12-year-old have Instagram? And how can I really control what my daughter or son sees on social media?

Research has helped to make parents aware of impacts of screens on developing brains. But a major topic of concern is the impact of social media on the self-image of teenagers, particularly young women. They are bombarded by carefully edited images depicting the all-too-perfect and unrealistic image of beauty.

Kids are targeted by so-called ‘influencers” – You Tube celebrities whose sponsored activities enable them to win over your son or daughter to a particular product or brand. Teenagers living in affluent societies report higher levels of depression and anxiety that can be connected to their early exposure to unattainable levels of wealth and perfection.

So how do you help your child navigate this social media world? And how do you know when their use of social media has turned into a bigger problem?

Early Warning Signs of Screen Addiction

Some indications that social media usage has become a problem for your teen include:

  • Sudden withdrawal from activities they once enjoyed i.e. art, music, sports, time with friends (*Note: for some teens, time online is part of their social time with friends)
  • A sudden new obsession with their weight and appearance
  • Increasing defensiveness and even aggression when parents attempt to set a limit on use of devices and screens
  • Increasing absences from school and a sudden, significant drop in performance across most subject areas
  • Outright refusal to attend school

Parents of a teen who suddenly opts for hours of video gaming over other family or peer activities should consider whether this change is a response to something unexpected, or difficult in their child’s life. It may be a way of coping with disappointment, an indication of struggles developing at school (related to learning difficulties, or bullying) or an avoidance of the impacts of a sudden change or loss that the family has experienced.

Teens may feel overwhelmed in the face of change. Escaping into a video game allows them to bargain with the reality of the change. It may even give them a sense of achievement or mastery, at a time when they feel powerless in the face of change or conflict in the family. That doesn’t mean they should be granted unlimited access to a point that threatens their ability to show up and function in other important areas of life.

Navigating the Storm

Parents who are concerned and feel unable to bridge the communication gap with this issue are advised to seek family counselling to reconnect with their teen with understanding, emotion coaching, and setting clear and appropriate limits on screen time.

Parenting in the digital age is like navigating a small craft through a winter gale. Leaving your young teen to steer through this storm without support and guidance is simply not an option. Inviting them to see the hazards by opening up conversations about your own use, and sharing your concerns is a start. Asking your teen questions about what they see, what they enjoy, and what makes them uncomfortable is another way to stay on the voyage of discovery with them.

It’s important for parents of younger children to address the “boogieman” of the internet. Parents can play a role in pointing out what’s real, and what’s not. Help your child to ask their own questions about the content they are consuming.

And if leaving them unattended on a device is unavoidable, consider using parental controls to ensure that they are not exposed to mature content that may confuse or frighten them. It is a parent’s responsibility to protect their child from the harm that can arise from exploitive or explicit content on the internet.

The Impact of Your Own Use of Screens

Your ability to parent and monitor social media usage starts with monitoring your own pattern of use. Always remember “monkey see monkey do”. You are your child’s role model when it comes to using devices or accessing social media in your household.

If you create a night-time rule that phones must be turned off and left charging in the kitchen before bed, expect to lead by example. This means the limit you apply to your child when you are at the dinner table, out with the family, or attending a social event, also applies to you.

If you’re unable to set limits on yourself, perhaps an open family conversation is in order to discuss standards, or seek professional help. Or, consider installing a usage monitoring app on your smartphone that can help you practice and demonstrate responsible use.