Raising children in a digital age

Dr Bex Lewis offers advice to parents on engaging with the internet

In the same way as you’re beside your child when they learn to crawl, walk and ride a bike, right up to when they learn to drive, you have to teach them to respect the digital environment, look for the opportunities and be aware of the potential dangers. Talk to them about what they are seeing and experiencing, give them freedom within boundaries as you would in any other space.

Reports in recent years have given us an idea of how many children spend time online, how much time they spend and what they do there. The EU Kids Online Project found that a significant number of under-13s have online profiles, even though most social networks, such as Facebook, require members to be at least 13 years old.

A growing number are accessing the online world via mobile devices. The latest payment packages for broadband and mobile phones have removed constraints that previously held back access, and laptops, tablets and e-readers have reached a price at which they are attractive as presents.

The CHILDWISE Monitor Report 2012 highlighted that the most common activities for primary school children online are playing games and watching video clips, while those over 11 are more likely to be engaging in communications activities, such as social networking or instant messaging. We need to educate our children to use technology in a balanced way: misbehaviour hasn’t changed as much as the ways of carrying it out.

In order to give children clear, definable boundaries and some structure online, learn about the spaces that they are engaging with but, more importantly, understand the different ways that they engage with them.

For all of us, the online environment has changed. We increasingly have wireless broadband at home, we have more mobile devices, it’s easy to segue between online and offline, we have more control over the things we watch via time-shifted TV, we are able to shop online, search for information online, store material ‘in the cloud’, keep connected with people even when we’ve moved on through social networks, and use GPS for a range of functions.


The rate of change means that there are major differences in experience across age groups and we read or experience differently according to what we’ve experienced before.

In the past, the adults in their lives would have introduced children to the world slowly: family and local neighbours, then national, then international. With the internet, there truly is a global world at our fingers from the get-go – and there’s no point saying “You can’t have”, as most children will just find access at someone else’s house.

The reality that the CHILDWISE reports have demonstrated is that older children are using the internet to talk with friends whom they already see every day, continuing the conversation, sharing notes, and making plans. Younger children focus more on keeping in touch with friends and family members who live further away.

Increased time spent online will most likely increase exposure to negative experiences – but also the positive opportunities.

Nancy Willard, a cyberbullying expert, calls for us to work on the “understanding that  the vast majority of young people want to make good choices, do not want to be harmed, and do not want to see their friends or others harmed.” We can’t control their whole environment, online or offline, so parents need to give their children the capability to deal with problems as they come across them.

Dr Leslie Haldon, who was involved in the LSE EU Kids Online study of 25,000 children in Europe said: “Children are not all the same…much of what is considered risky by one child will be considered not problematic by others. So, the most important recommendation is to ask children what bothers them online, listen to what they have to say and help them accordingly.”

Professor Sonia Livingstone and her team conducted research across Europe for EU Kids Online, and were surprised to find that parents still have such a strong role in advising, setting rules and supporting children online, particularly when they encounter risks there. As children get older, they are more likely to turn to their friends, who may have been the catalyst for their wanting to go online in the first place.

Research has demonstrated that at present most parental involvement is triggered only by a negative experience, so we need to be more proactive in helping children engage online.

Research has also shown that a significant majority of children do not report negative online experiences, either because they are afraid that their parents will overreact, or because they feel they are able to take responsibility and fix the problem themselves. A belief in their ability to handle difficult situations effectively on their own is an important life skill for teenagers to acquire.

The more trustworthy people children have to confide in, the less likely it is that they will turn to strangers for advice, so it is all down to communication. Appropriate adults need to talk to children about their online activities and behaviour, providing space to listen and discuss any issues that arise. This is the most powerful and effective weapon you have in your parenting toolbox.

In every interaction with your child in relation to digital technologies, ensure there is at least one positive statement about your child’s activities. This is known as ‘operant conditioning’ – it means your child will be more likely to want to share aspects of their digital life with you.

Beth Blecherman, founder of TechMamas.com, has a daily talk with her children about the sites they are using, offering a space to catch ‘problems’ before they get too far out of hand. I’d suggest you think about a short, weekly session, either round the dinner table or with all sitting at the same eye level. Decide whether you will turn the technology off, or make it an active part of the conversation. Think about the kinds of topic you would like to discuss such as, what have you seen this week, and what did you enjoy?

Most books and websites dealing with this topic will recommend a ‘Family Internet Agreement’. Some offer simple agreements for the family to sign, but research demonstrates that families should discuss specifically with their children what should be in such an agreement, and for which ages, and create something that fits in with the family values, such as a three-column sheet with “Yes, we can”, “Don’t like it” and “Don’t even think about it”, with the rules potentially moving columns as the children get older.

It’s worth taking time to agree what the consequences should be for breaking the rules. Boundaries will be pushed, and rules will be broken. As an example, if your child is found texting at 3am, keep the device in your room overnight for a month, returning it each morning, with stricter punishments for repeated rule breaking. In most effective agreements, parents also agree what their own internet practices will be.

Positive behaviours

Parents should concentrate on developing positive behaviours in children rather than focusing only on undesirable behaviour. With regard to an Internet Safety Agreement, ensure that your children realise that you simply want to understand the spaces they are in, to encourage them to be responsible and help them understand that there’s good material online. Children need to grasp that everyone is being watched, all net activity leaves ‘digital fingerprints’, and there are legal ramifications of net abuse.

Get to know whom they are friends with online, discuss costs and timing, define consequences and consider particular scenarios and get them to think about how they might react. It is not helpful to monitor children without letting them know that you are doing so, otherwise you may lose their trust.

Just let your children know that the only reason you’re keeping an eye on them is to help them if they get into difficulties, and teach them to respect, not fear, what technology can do.


*Dr Bex Lewis is a Research Fellow in Social Media and Online Learning in the University of Durham in Britain. This extract was taken from her book Raising Children in a Digital Age, published by Lion Books.