Parenting in the Digital Age

Years ago, the renowned cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, wrote about the breakdown in relationships between immigrant parents and their children.  As children learn a new language they become part of a new culture not shared by their parents.  As a consequence, parents lose their status and thus their influence as authority figures for their children.  These observations led Mead to advocate methods of supporting cultural differences such as teaching children in their native language in school.

In the same vein, children today are growing up in a new digital world different from the one in which most parents grew up.   They, too, “speak” in a language parents are struggling to understand.  Our children are the digital natives while we, as parents, are immigrants unsure about how to maintain authority in this new technological world.  Schools play a part, too, using children’s digital native language through computers and other technology such as smart boards in class and putting homework online.  

A new book, “Screen-Smart Parenting”, by Dr. Jodi Gold, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, goes a long way in helping parents both navigate – and help their children safely navigate – the at times choppy waters of this technological world.  Hers is a balanced approach which recognizes both the benefits and liabilities of various technological devices as well as social media and video games.  Using a developmental approach, she shows how the appropriate use of technology relates to where children are in their development rather in itself being good or bad.

I was particularly interested in Dr. Gold’s comments about privacy.  A question I am asked most by parents is whether it is right or wrong to look at their children’s Facebook page or other kinds of exchanges online.  Parents are conflicted about invading their children’s privacy and compare it to reading a diary as breaking trust, which feels wrong.  Dr. Gold, under the heading, “Not Your Mother’s Diary”, writes, “Parents need to be the guardians of their children’s online safety and privacy.” 

The concern of parents reflects the controversy in the society at large about the conflicts that arise between privacy and security, and whether we relinquish some of our cherished privacy to achieve necessary security.  How to find the right balance is a matter of national concern and is also the concern of parents who try to manage the need to protect their children’s privacy in the world and their children’s desire to have privacy from them, their parents.

In a way, we are all trying to come to terms with our recognition that privacy, as we once knew it, no longer exists.  It comes as an unpleasant shock to discover that our own computers have been hacked but even worse is learning that our bank records or charge card information has been collected through online theft.  Dr. Gold refers to the digital footprint – the traces we leave on the Internet and the information collected about us by others – and stresses the importance of one’s child’s footprint which starts at birth. 

By now there have been enough publicized examples of young people not getting jobs because of things they wrote or pictures they posted on various sites.  Children have also found themselves in other kinds of difficulty for the same reason.  Parents need to help children become aware of and manage the footprint they are leaving.  Dr. Gold believes the goal of parents should be to help their children cultivate a thoughtful digital footprint.  Children may make mistakes but “they need their digital identity to mirror their real identity.”

Basic to all of this is the concept of digital citizenship that reflects the norms and ethics of responsible and appropriate technology use.  Being thoughtful and mindful of what one says and posts online refers both to oneself and to others.  Technology is a tool that can be used in a positive way both personally, for friends and for the larger community.  The use of technology brings with it responsibility.  Parents have the job of educating their children about the responsible use of the technological tools they are given.

Underlying everything we teach our children is our own value system.  As “digital immigrants” we need to apply those values, even as we are learning to speak the language of the natives who are our children.


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