Struggling to manage your kids screen time, social media and device use?

Are you constantly wrangling with your kids about their device use or the amount of time they spend online?

Welcome to the club! It is definitely one of the more challenging aspects of modern parenting, and we all know why they find those screens so mesmerising – because we are often glued to them too.

With this in mind we had a chat with an expert on the subject – meet Dr Catherine Page Jeffery, a lecturer in Communication and Media at the University of Canberra. She is uniquely qualified having done her PhD research on parental anxieties around their teenage children’s digital media use. She also ticked another important box in our eyes: she is a parent, with two daughters aged 7 and 9.

Dr Catherine Page Jeffery

Key takeaways

  • Don’t get sucked into the media panic about kids and devices/social media/gaming
  • Realise the opportunities technology provides 
  • There is no ‘right’ time for your child to get a device
  • Keep in mind your child’s own needs, their age, and level of maturity
  • Talk to your child about the risks 
  • Involve yourself in what they are doing online
  • Ongoing dialogue, discussions about risk as well as online opportunities, are usually more effective

What are the challenges the digital world raises for parents?

Digital media such as social media, phones, the internet and online gaming, are often the subject of media panics which typically focus on all the potential risks posed by new technologies to children. These risk narratives often place a range of responsibilities and expectations on parents, who are expected to regulate digital media in such a way so as to minimise these risks. 

But in reality, parents often struggle to do this, especially with older children and teenagers who are developing their own independence and autonomy. The result is often parental anxiety, where parents are made aware of the risks of digital media, but struggle to live up to these expectations in practice. 

The disproportionate focus on online risk also overshadows all the benefits and opportunities of digital media use amongst young people. The challenge for parents is to help their children minimise the risks of digital media, whilst also realising the various opportunities. 

Can you recommend some strategies for parents to deal with digital media? 

You should talk to your child. 

Rules around device use, especially amongst some older children, will probably be more effective if they are determined in consultation with the child.  

Parents need to understand the value and benefits of digital media to many young people today – whether it’s socialising with friends, supporting and receiving support from friends, learning how to do new things using YouTube, co-operating in teams through online gaming, finding like-minded people and communities of support, and even civic engagement. 

It’s easy for parents to overlook these benefits when they just see their children staring at a screen.  That doesn’t mean that we should ignore risk. Most young people today get quite a lot of cyber safety education which covers the various risks, but it’s certainly worth checking in with children to make sure that they are aware of the various risks (such enquiries will often be met with a roll of the eyes, and a ‘Yes! We know!’) 

Parents should try to ensure that they create a relationship with their children that respects their privacy (again, this will depend on their age), but encourages their child to come to them if they experience anything concerning or upsetting online.

Our parents didn’t have to deal with tech and the internet? Is life more complex today?

True, our parents didn’t have to navigate the world of the internet and mobile phones, but we need to remember that we’ve been raising the alarm on ‘new’ forms of media for decades now, and that children (and also women) are often the focus of concern. 

The advent of telephone landlines raised concerns that women would use them to contact members of the opposite sex in ways which were inappropriate. Comic books, cinema and video games also elicited their own ‘panics’ about the potentially damaging effects of exposure to these sorts of media. And of course the advent of television generated its own panic in relation to children’s exposure to ‘adult’ content such as violence and sex.  

So collective concerns about the internet and mobile phones, while presented as something new (although, it’s hardly new now) are actually a reconfiguration of a much longer historical concern about the vulnerability and corruptibility of young people by media. There is no denying, however, that the various features of digital media present a distinct set of challenges for parents today. But we also need to remember that they also provide a way of staying in touch and checking in with our children too.

Can you talk us through your risk-based approach to managing digital media for parents

 There’s no one-size-fits-all approach here. 

There are no magic numbers about how much screen time your children should be having, or at what age they should get a mobile phone, or be allowed social media. Parents need to discuss these issues with their child, keeping in mind their child’s own needs, their age, and their level of maturity and so on. The literature shows that parents typically engage in two main forms of mediation of their children’s device use: restrictive mediation and enabling mediation. 

  • Restrictive mediation involves setting rules, restrictions and limitations. 
  • Enabling mediation involves talking to children about risks and involving themselves in what their children are doing online (although this is not always easy)

In reality, parents will adopt both restrictive and enabling strategies depending on the situation, context and age of their child. Restrictive strategies are less likely to succeed with older children, and will probably just create conflict. This is where ongoing dialogue, discussions about risk as well as online opportunities, are usually more effective. 

The short answer is that ongoing dialogue with your child, showing an interest in what they’re doing online, and recognising and valuing the many benefits that their children get from digital media, is probably the best approach.

Safe Online Together Workshops

The News & Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra have received a research grant to run Safe Online Together workshops aimed at reducing family conflict around digital media use.  These are free and will be rolled out in the ACT from end of May, so if you are part of our Canberra community feel free to make use of this very useful resource.

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