It’s 6:00 am. The alarm goes off—it’s the tune of Baby Shark—and Mommy Jane reaches out to her nightstand to grab the phone where the sound is coming from. She hits “Dismiss”. Shortly, while the kids are eating breakfast, Mommy Jane calls out: “Hey Google, how’s the traffic like to school?”
The response is instant: light to moderate traffic. When it is time to leave, everyone troops out of the house and gets into the car. After dropping the kids off at school, Mommy Jane drives off to her office where a report is waiting to get done. Once there, she boots up her laptop and dives into work.
Does Mommy Jane’s routine remind you a lot of yours? That’s probably because, just like her, digital devices have become an integral part of your lifestyle.
Singapore has the highest smartphone adoption rate in the world — an average user here has at least 3.3 connected devices — and as many as 93% of Singaporeans go online every day for personal use, according to Google research tool ‘Consumer Barometer’. The numbers are not surprising given how the internet has helped make our lives easier and simpler in so many ways. From helping us organise our lives, getting answers to everyday questions, keeping in touch with family and friends, and entertaining us with music, games and stories—the internet has made it all happen in one click.
While the internet offers us plenty of opportunities, there are also downsides to it. Besides eye strain, headaches, and insomnia that may result from too much screen time, there are also bigger issues we may face as parents, including cyberbullying, internet addiction and inappropriate content such as sexually explicit or excessively violent material.
So, as parents, how do we balance the pros and cons of the internet with our children?
Digital Parenting Guide
Clique Click, an updated digital parenting guide by the Media Literacy Council (MLC), describes four main parenting approaches and archetypes in Singaporean households. Which one of the following do you relate to the most?
1. The Guardian
Guardian parents are very concerned about the growing threats that come from a digitally-connected world and are focused on keeping their children safe online. Hence, they are often more direct in their approach and would carefully monitor their children’s device usage and social media accounts. They are most concerned about the risks their children may encounter online.
These parents can also come off as being “too strict,” which may result in their children being more inclined to lie or hide their online activities from them. If you want to know if you are becoming overly-protective, here are some signs that you can look out for:
- When you confiscate their device after catching them doing something wrong, rather than using it as a teachable moment; or
- When your default answer to any request from your child to use the device is “No,” rather than asking them why.
In such cases, children may see their parent as someone who is against the internet rather than a partner in digital use.
2. The Realist
Realist parents know that denying their children the use of technology is impractical in the digital age, especially given how dependent their children are on technology for school and their social lives. Parents who use this approach consider their children’s needs and allow the use of digital devices in moderation. They use media access and digital devices as incentives or tools to encourage good behaviour in their children. Consequently, their children view the use of the internet as a privilege rather than an entitlement.
However, as their internet usage is restricted, some children may choose to prioritise fun and play on the internet and shelf the learning opportunities. To some extent, these children might even feel isolated amongst their peers who have access to the internet anytime. Therefore, parents must be careful to differentiate between play and productive use of the internet to ensure a healthy balance.
3. The Optimist
Optimist parents do not just think that there are positive effects of using technology. They also want these positive effects to be the goal of their children’s tech use and encourage active uses of it. These parents acknowledge the potential of technology and the valuable learning opportunities it provides, and are not as concerned with restricting their children’s use.
However, these parents may be less prepared for the negative effects of the internet on their children. They may not know how to address sensitive issues, such as when their children come across content that they aren’t supposed to see. By implementing fewer restrictions on their children’s online activities, these parents may be unwittingly exposing their children to digital threats including cyberbullying and online falsehoods.
4. The Watchful
Watchful parents manage both their expectations and anxieties about their children going online in the best way they know how: by staying updated and informed. These parents are more likely to try out any given medium before allowing their children to use them. They stay well-informed on the benefits and risks of the digital world, read advice columns, join online digital parenting forums, and ask for tips from friends on children’s digital consumption.
Watchful parents are a few steps ahead of their children. While the kids are still learning how to use a new app or website, these parents have already studied its pros and cons. In doing so, they become enablers of internet use.
However, these parents must be careful not to give their children the impression that extended online consumption is acceptable while using technology and media avidly along with them. Aside from paying attention to the type of content and kind of engagement available on the platforms, parents also need to be watchful of the physiological effects of excessive screen time such as:
- Chronic neck and back pain; and
- Poor sleeping habits.
Regardless of the digital parenting style you identify with, here are some general tips about keeping your children safe on the internet:
1. Set up parental controls
Parental controls help restrict the kind of information on the internet that your children have access to and display only age-appropriate content.
For instance, on-demand streaming services allow you to create profiles where you can tailor the content that will be available to the user. Parental controls on these services act as filters to the kind of content your children are exposed to.
Parental controls can also limit time spent on the device, as well as disable new app downloads and in-game purchases. While many versions of computer operating systems already have built-in parental controls on their operating systems, some of them can be purchased as separate programmes or apps that offer more features and customisation.
Other than just parental controls, you can also put passwords on computers, smartphones or tablets around the house so that your child will require permission before getting access to the internet. Be careful about leaving your password-protected phones and other devices unattended with your curious little kids though. You won’t want to be this dad who got locked out of his iPad for 48 years, after his child entered the wrong password multiple times!
Aside from technical interventions, you can also create family rules for device use at home. This leads us to the next point.
2. Be a good screen time model
Picture this: Your 12-year-old has been playing on her tablet for a while now so you call her out and say, “Enough of the tablet, your eyes are going to get strained.” To your surprise, your child retorts: “But Daddy is on his phone all the time!”
Children do what they see. Regardless of the type of digital media device used—be it the television, computer, smartphone, or tablet—your own screen time is the strongest predictor of your children’s screen time. Are you always stuck to your devices during meal times or family events? Be a good role model for your kids and make sure you practice exactly what you would expect from them.
It is easy for parents to focus on controlling their children’s screen time, but they often neglect moderating their own. This results in distracted parenting, which makes children feel unimportant and deprived of attention.
Some simple steps you can take to prevent this include making sure you have a “Tech-Free” zone at home, or by putting away devices as a family during meal times.
3. Watch with your kids
The foundation of a child’s world view is often set in the early years of their lives. While it is easy to let your child entertain themselves with digital devices, it is recommended for parents to sit and co-view content along with their children. This allows parents to monitor and control the sort of content their children consume.
By watching high-quality programmes together with them for an hour or less each day, you can help them understand the concept of responsible screen time. This also opens up many great opportunities to introduce various good values to them, by pointing out examples from programmes such as kindness, fairness and diligence.
4. The screen time contract
Exposure to digital technology and electronic devices happen much earlier for children in this digital age. Be it for learning or entertainment, far younger children use technology regularly. Once your child goes to school, they will need the internet for school projects and other learning activities. To better manage your child’s device usage habits, consider creating a ‘screen time contract’ with them beginning from young, and make adjustments according to their needs as they get older.
Instead of stopping them from using the internet, you can build trust with your child by involving them when setting rules for usage. For example, you can let them decide how they can earn more screen time—perhaps by fulfilling certain tasks, such as completing chores or practising a sport. By enforcing the consequences when they break the contract, you can teach them about self-control and discipline.
You can also add other basic rules such as not sharing their passwords with anyone, not opening suspicious emails and having conversations with strangers, and most importantly, letting you know immediately if they see something inappropriate online.
After creating this contract, you can let your kids know that you will occasionally check their browser history to monitor their online activities and see if they are abiding by the ground rules.
5. Offline activities
The best way to avoid internet dependency is to encourage your children to learn and enjoy activities offline. You can set aside time to bond with your children with non-tech, non-screen activities.
Plan weekends where you can spend time with your family in nature. Go to the beach, or visit an exhibition. Instead of computer games, you can also encourage your kids to pick up an outdoor sport such as football or basketball so that they know how to have fun without the internet.
We’ve all heard of the classic quote from the Spider-Man movie: “With great power, comes great responsibility!” The same can be applied to internet usage. While the internet opens the door to endless possibilities for us, remember to maximise the advantages by learning to Be Safe, Be Smart, and Be Kind online. Parents, this starts with you. Practice healthy screen time and positive use of the internet yourself, and your kids will model after you. After all, you’re only #1ClickAway from a better internet.
For more information on digital parenting, download Clique Click here.
- Lauricella, Wartella, and Rideout (2015) Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology