As digital natives grow and develop in their increasingly technological lives, their parents need to develop as well. No matter their technology skills prior to having children, they are now responsible for raising a child to be not only a successful human, but a model citizen of the world-wide web.

The expectations, the pressure, and the stakes of parenting a digital native are high.

Pressure on parents to keep their children ‘safe’ online seems to be the primary focus of articles, websites and Facebook posts, full of often-unsolicited advice on how to monitor internet usage, prevent undesirable contact with undesirable citizens, and limiting the amount of exposure to digital media at all. Parents naturally should want to protect their children from harm; but at what point is focusing on prevention of potential harm rather than on the positive impact of digital media in a young person’s life facilitating a culture of fear?

“One of the most dangerous places your children can go is right in your home.”

This ominous warning is found in a series of PSAs run by NBC. NBC claims this series is on raising a ‘good digital citizen’, and yet their series focuses on parental control, cyberbullying, and stranger danger online. These 15-second parenting advice tidbits leave the viewer with more of a feeling of dread than feeling advised:

Advice of never talking to someone you don’t already know, never sharing anything with anyone, running to report to someone if you overheard that person say something mean, and restricting access to ALL people, places or things that have the potential for danger would seem asinine and directly in opposition to the goal of raising good citizens in an offline world, but somehow seems to be accepted as sound advice when applied to the web, the world of a digital native. Think about what the world would look like if people were encouraged to never talk to someone they hadn’t met. No connections, no friendships, no conversations facilitated–all in the name of safety.

A quick Amazon search for parenting books on ‘kids and the internet’ reveals a plethora of safety advice for today’s digital parents: online safety, cyber-safe kids, and ‘outsmarting’ your kids are all topics available for purchase; not to mention a best-seller encouraging you to porn-proof your kids.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised their guidelines for children consuming digital media. With their new guidelines, they presented a family media plan. This media plan is certainly more inclusive of the idea that digital literacy is an important aspect of kids’ lives: but reading through the plan, the tone seems more fearful than progressive. The section that focuses on being “good digital citizens” is full of things kids agree NOT to do: not bullying and not sharing things online, and reporting those who do. But this negative fails to recognize the relationship developments that occur online for digital natives that normally would have occurred in ‘real life’.  Digital natives who are now adolescents may very well develop real friendships and even relationships online that involve the sharing of ideas, personal information, and images, and this process is not necessarily a bad thing, but a natural progression of a relationship.  

 

While the US is concentrating on parental controls, an interesting contrast is the current focus of the Children’s Commissioner in the UK. Their recently published report on growing up digital focuses on how children and young adults can gain resilience, information and power from their online world, and that their offline rights need to be extended online. The report adds to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifying ways in which their rights need to be continued and upheld online, including having equal opportunities to participate online. This powerful idea puts the control in the hands of the digital natives, which seems to be so reluctantly given in the US. It also changes the focus for those raising these digital natives from preventing and protecting to parenting.

So as parents, as clinicians working with families, as digital immigrants, we must ask ourselves: is our fear of the unknown causing us to struggle to hold on to any perceived control over our children and their online lives? Is this helpful? Is this going to produce the good digital citizens that we are hoping for, or instill a fear of the natural world which they are going to be a part of regardless of how tightly we hold on?

 

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