Raising Children In A Digital Age: Advice For Parents

Mother and son using digital tablet
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Mother and son using digital tablet

Technology plays an enormous part in our children's lives already - from toddlers using tablets to teens on Snapchat - and will be a hugely significant part of their future too.

Yet, with all the worrying newspaper stories about children and teens who have come to harm as a result of the internet or their mobile, it seems there is a feeling of disquiet about this rapid digital advancement.

Dr Bex Lewis is an author and research fellow in social media and online learning at the University of Durham. An advocate of the online experience, she thinks that despite negative press, it's important that we focus on how much there is to gain.

Bex has just published Raising Children In A Digital Age, a book designed to help parents, teachers and youth workers grasp the inner workings of it all, to help the young people in their lives enjoy the best and avoid the worst of their digital environment.

Why did you write this book?

The 'digital revolution' has affected all our lives, whether we are proactively engaged or not. I've gained so much from being actively engaged online that I want other people to have good experiences too, whatever age they are. I've had lots of questions from youth and children's workers about how to manage something that has become everyday for most of the children they work with.


Digital technology is not a passing phase that can be ignored, but something that we need to get to grips with both as it affects us now, and as it will affect children's futures. We can choose whether we engage positively or not.


The majority of children in the Western world now have a mobile phone, particularly those over the age of 11, and since 2011 tablets have become increasingly popular, especially among young children for whom managing a mouse is hard, but swiping a screen is not.

With increasing concern from many of my colleagues, I looked around to see what I might recommend on the topic but found the last book was published in 2011. So I put my research skills to good use to write a new one!


In the same way we can use a brick to either break a window or build a house, digital technology can be used for good or bad, and parents can and should help their children make positive choices so they have positive experiences.


How much do you really think children and teens are at risk online? Do newspaper headlines reporting isolated cases make parents overly worried?

We need to be thankful that the kinds of stories that make the news, make the news because they are unusual and don't happen all the time. Those attention grabbing headlines encourage us to read stories about potential serious risks. In reality though, many of the risks we are likely to encounter are small and easily addressed, so they don't attract press.

As a result it's possible that the attention of politicians, and government policies, focus on the wrong areas. In 2008, Professor Tanya Byron – a well know psychologist – produced a significant policy review for the UK government entitled 'Safer Government in a Digital World'. She acknowledged that there had been increased media debate about the subject but claimed that too much "still predominantly focuses on the extreme, often tragic, and thankfully rare cases of harm to children and young people" and she called for reporters to report in a balanced way, to better reflect the wide range of experiences online.

So what are parents worrying about most?

There is a wide range of concerns, including the big things we see in the press: stranger danger, accessing porn, cyber bullying, addiction, ID theft, loss of social abilities and the lack of control parents feel they have over their children's use of technology because it is increasingly mobile.

Parents worry, too, about the tools available to them – finding filtering software too complicated or inefficient and the technology giants too powerful to really engage with.

Other concerns included what children post online, the pressure to conform in order to be popular, over-sharing, the public nature of disagreements, the speed at which information is spread, consumerism (the pressure to buy the latest devices), and 'digital footprints' (the digital trail which is left by all online activities and interactions) children are creating for their future.

Parents are also worried about social aspects – that their children will suffer from information overload, or they'll suffer by not spending time with 'real' people, that they spend too much time viewing screens, their creativity is being stifled, or that poor quality English is being triggered by grammatically incorrect 'text speak'. Some parents were also worried about their children receiving a skewed view of the world from unreliable information they would engage with online.

And do you think that parents are worrying about the right things?

I think while many parents are concerned about what other people can do to their children online, they're perhaps not focusing enough on the positive opportunities available.

Some of the positive questionnaire responses included: access to a wide range of information (especially if not blocked by a filter) and huge educational benefits for the future, giving children the opportunity to engage with the world as it is right now, increased access for those with disabilities, and opportunities to enjoy spending time together on devices and for parents to learn from their children.

Socially, there were comments about increased connection with family and friends regardless of distance, the speed of communication, a positive impact on social life, the ability to make more flexible plans, the global nature of online spaces, the opportunities for fun and entertainment, learning from games, and prospects for increased creativity.


There are great adventures to be had online and parents can have those adventures with their children. In the same way you would be beside them as they learn to ride a bike safely, gradually moving them towards cycling without their stabilisers, you can encourage and teach them to be safe while online.


Are today's parents feeling daunted by the speed of technological advances, and as if they can't keep up? What's your advice for them?

With every new technological advance, including the inventions of the printing press, telephone and television, fears have been raised. They're known as 'moral panics' and Frank Furedi, a sociologist, says they occur when society as a whole feels unable to adapt to dramatic changes and fears a loss of control.

This isn't helped by the media generalising isolated instances of harm, implying that we are all at risk.

We have thrived though all of those previous changes and can thrive now if we don't over-focus on the negatives. Parents shouldn't feel that they are too far behind on any of this technology or that it is just a 'young people's thing', which they can't engage with.

There is no shame in asking your child about the online platforms they are using either. People have talked about, for example, Facebook dying out, but it is still a huge presence online – anything you learn about that site now will help you with websites you might engage with in the future.

My book is designed to be a no-nonsense guide to all of it, to help adults gain more confidence online and take some of the fears away.

To what extent do you think parents should be involved in (or controlling) their children's digital presence?

As you would in any other environment, you can create a 'walled garden' for your children when very young, allowing them to use only the websites that you have identified and bookmarked (known as a 'whitelist').

Then you can relax this as they get older, replacing supervision with discussion. If you choose to use filtering software, you you should be aware that none are 10023FFEB00&videoControlDisplayColor=%23191919&shuffle=0&isAP=1">

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