Published on December 1, 2023
I don’t know about you, but as a parent I approach upcoming school holidays with slight trepidation. On one level I love the fact that my child will get much-needed down time, and that as a family we will get a break from the hustle and bustle of the school day. On another level, I worry about too much downtime for my child; about monitoring how much time he is on screen versus getting physical exercise; and what I need to organise to get that right balance for him.
By contrast, as a child of two working parents with six older siblings, my parents were not concerned about school holidays at all. My older siblings were in charge at home, and we were left to our own devices. There were no mobile phones, computers or ipads to access so the most technology we had was TV, which did not involve on demand streaming! Apart from walking to the video store to hire a video, we were at the whim of the TV schedule, and in Tasmania in the 80s that was limited to three television stations.
This meant my siblings and I were outside a lot. My home was suburban but surrounded by bushland and we spent a lot of time in the bush with neighbourhood kids. We did stupid things sometimes, risked snakes and the like tramping through the bush, but we also knew what to do if someone feel off their bike or got bitten by a snake. Our parents didn’t always know what we got up to; however, if we did something really foolish the consequence was visible (such as the time one of my brother’s fell through the “man” hole in the roof; nothing was going to hide that damage from our parents).
There are two important points here:
- We spent our holidays outside, getting up to mischief sometimes, but always out of the house.
- We took risks at times but the risks, and the consequences if something went wrong, were visible to ourselves and our parents.
Move forward to December 2023 and I feel we should be a bit more worried about what our children are doing in the holidays. This is because
- Our children have access to technology and streaming services that are addictive – they are hard to put down and walk away from, and they can be with our children all the time with phones or wearable devices (even if they are out walking and playing, many of our children are still connected online).
- The risks our children may be facing online are invisible to us. Online risks don’t produce a broken bone, grazed knee or snake bite. Instead, if our children experience harm online the impact is psychological, social and at times cognitive. This impact is often invisible to us until it gets really bad.
In The Art of Screentime: How your Family can Balance Digital Media and Real Life Anya Kamenetz (2018) writes: “What’s happening all over the world is a giant experiment. And there is essentially no control group.” (14) Kamenetz makes this statement in relation to our screen time and our digital lives (especially social media). She also writes:
By being thoughtful about what behaviours you model and how you introduce foods to your kids, by sharing the creation and consumption of great meals with them, you can lay the groundwork for joyful lifelong habits. And the same is true for media. (Kamenetz, 9)
We work hard to teach our children healthy eating habits: we restrict their access to unhealthy foods, model good eating and exercise, monitor their spending on food at school so we know they are eating a balanced diet, and restrict what we buy so that they don’t have easy access to juke food 24/7.
However, we don’t always apply the same controls to the social media consumption of our children. Younger and younger children in our school have mobile phones and wearable technology. As children’s digital lives begin at a younger and younger age, it becomes imperative that as parents we take charge, impose limits, ensure our children’s online lives are visible to us, and actively model and teach them how to be curious and critical users, producers and consumers of technology.
We know that young people mature at different rates, emotionally, socially and cognitively. Therefore, one child’s readiness for social media is not the same as another’s. You might feel as though all your child’s friends are on social media and have a phone, and that he/she will be left out without the same access. This, though, doesn’t take into consideration a child’s developmental readiness. If you are facing the dilemma of phone or no phone, social media or no social media, consider asking yourself these quesitons:
- Does your child find it hard to control their impulses at times?
- How does your child respond to conflict? How might that tendency play out online?
- Does your child have heightened emotions sometimes (all children do but some find it easier to be triggered than others)? For instance does he/she get angry quickly?
- How much do you know about the other children your child is interacting with through social media?
- Do you feel comfortable with your child interacting with other children online in an unsupervised environment from a young age?
As Kamenetz says, social media and screen time represents a global experiment with “no control group”. Without a control group, it is important that we put controls in place at school and at home. Your child’s online life is often invisible to you, as are the consequences when things go wrong. If there is cyber bullying through snapchat, the post goes instantly unless a screenshot is taken. The harm caused by cyber bullying is invisible in the first instance: it impacts a child’s sense of self through humiliation and shaming. The impact is cognitive, emotional, social and hidden.
We are the control in our children’s lives. We can as parents be online with our young people and we can set limits so they can learn how to navigate the digital world in a way that maintains dignity for all and keeps everyone safe.
Even our most mature students make mistakes; if those mistakes are on social media then they are part of their digital footprint and could easily come back to haunt them.
As you look ahead to the holidays – perhaps with some trepidation about how to limit your child’s screentime – lean into that trepidation and use it to set boundaries and limits. Talk it through as a family and, if you haven’t already, invite yourself into their digital worlds. Get onto Discord, SnapChat, Instagram, Tik Tok and whatever other platform your child is on. Check out what they and others are doing and, if you are uncomfortable with what you see, don’t be afraid to remove that privilege from your child until he/she is ready to be online.
If you are struggling with what to do as a parent, check out the E-safety Commissioner’s website for parents. Lastly, if you are a parent of a teen, or emerging teen, the MIT Raising Teen’s project has some great resources to support your thinking. The Raising Teens Project identifies five basics of parenting adolescents:
- Love and Connect
- Monitor and Observe
- Guide and Limit
- Model and Consult
- Provide and Advocate.
Intuitively we know what it means to parent our children and, in an age, when technologies are ubiquitous and ever present, we need to guide our children, limit their access until when know they have the skills they need to be safe and to behave well, and model what it means to be a critical and curious producer and consumer of social media.
This is in our hands as parents, and with 2024 on the horizon, it is a great time to reflect on our own and our children’s use of social media and technology. We need to create the controls that will keep our children safe.