How To Parent In The Digital Age

My parents did a u-turn on their attitude to tech, and I’m glad

When I was a teenager, I was subject to lots of rules and restrictions regarding technology use. If I wanted a mobile phone I had to pay for it myself using my pocket money. I had to hand my electronic devices in before bed. I was only allowed to watch TV on the weekends, after all my homework had been done. The go to response to “I’m bored” was always “read a book, or go outside”. I wasn’t allowed social media.

My parents had a shared Nokia brick that they used for emergency purposes only, and they didn’t really understand how sites like Myspace, Facebook, Twitter and MSN worked. They were too busy trying to keep me and my five younger siblings fed and dressed on time for school to be able to invest the time to learn how these platforms worked. So, their blanket policy was to ban me and my sister from using them.

The trouble was that I was a sheep. Everyone at school had a Bebo and Facebook account and would spend hours talking to boys from their class on MSN. Naturally, I wanted to be a part of that world, and so I made social media profiles when I was at my friend’s house.

At home, I would claim to need to use a laptop for school work and surreptitiously check my profile, making sure to delete my internet history afterwards. On the few occasions where I managed to avoid handing in the family laptop in before bed, I mastered the art of hearing when my parents were coming to my room to check on me and would pretend to breathe heavily so they thought I was asleep. Having such strict rules in place taught me to become very good at lying to my parents.

When my sister and I were eventually found out to have made Facebook accounts against our parents’ wishes, we were grounded for several months. I thought my parents were the cruellest people in the world. I missed the point of the punishment, which aimed to teach us not to lie and to be careful in how we used the internet. Combined with my parents’ refusal to let us attend house parties where they hadn’t spoken to the parents first, it felt like my parents were doing everything they could to prevent me and my sister from having a healthy social life. I recognise now that they were just trying to protect us, in a way that they thought was best at the time.

As we got a bit older, we were eventually allowed to have social media, but I would regularly get shown newspaper articles about some of the negative consequences of internet use, such as porn addiction or child exploitation. When I made friends with a girl on Tumblr and wanted to meet her in real life, my Mum insisted on coming to the train station with me to check she wasn’t an adult who wanted to abduct me or take advantage of me in some way. I thought this was super lame, and not at all necessary — but my Mum was right, I was at risk meeting a stranger off the internet. I was just lucky that my friend turned out to be who she said she was all along.

My parents were bemused when, in the midst of my GCSEs, I created my own blog ‘The Indiependent’ and got students from across the world to sign up to write articles for it. They didn’t understand it, but they were strangely proud of my achievement because they could see that I had created an online world that allowed me to escape from friendship problems at school. Having been bullied throughout school, I think they recognised the benefits of letting their child speak to like-minded individuals who wanted to write for a living. I was maintaining good grades and I had mentioned the website I had founded in my application to Oxford University, so they cautiously allowed me to proceed with this venture.

In the meantime, I had built up a substantial online following on Twitter off the back of my music journalism, where I would regularly tweet funny comments that a parent or sibling had made. Occasionally, I would tweet something that my sister or brother wouldn’t want broadcasted to the world, and I would be faced with a lecture from my parents about knowing where to draw the line between my online life and my real one. They never really seemed to grasp that the two were not mutually exclusive: I had more of a ‘real’ life because of my online life than I had ever had before.

Fast forward to 2019, and my parents have got a very different approach to technology compared to the views they held when I was growing up under their roof.

We’re miles away from the Nokia days of yore | Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

They have drastically improved their own technological literacy. My Mum has an iPhone which she uses to play Scrabble and do internet grocery shops. She is in a Whatsapp group with my Dad and brother, which is used to keep in contact with him whilst he is at university. My Dad has a smartphone and a tablet which he uses to keep up to date with the news and emails, and he recently made an Instagram account. Although his only post to date is a photo he took at my graduation ceremony, he can be counted on to like every single one of my photos. We never really texted when I was at university in Oxford, but his likes and sarcastic comments on my photos feel like his way of staying in touch with where I am and what I’m up to.

When it comes to policing my other brothers’ technology use (there are three of them who still live at home), my parents are nowhere near as strict as they were with me and my sister.

My brothers have mobile phones and they don’t have to hand them in before bed. There are parental controls set up on the wi-fi, but my brothers talk openly about their knowledge of how to use VPNs so it is an open secret that they can access pornographic content if they want. My parents have learnt to have frank and candid conversations about the way sex is depicted in porn rather than try and prevent my brothers from accessing it. After all, even I looked at porn when I was their age. The only difference was I accessed it cloaked in shame and felt the need to delete my browser history and pretend I had no such urges in the first place. Had my parents been more flexible about my technology use maybe I would have felt more comfortable talking to them about sex.

It would be easy to assume that my parents’ U-turns in their attitude to technology are a reflection of their gendered attitude to parenting: one rule for their daughters, another set of rules for their sons. After all, my parents have also relaxed their rules in other areas, such as allowing my brother’s girlfriend to sleep over and letting my brothers attend house parties without massive protest. But my parents insist this change is a consequence of having a more grown up household than having different attitudes to their male and female children having sex. When I was still at home, my youngest brother was only 10. He is now 15 years old. Perhaps I was just unlucky that I was born the eldest, and that I was subject to such strict rules in order to form a good role model for my younger siblings. Or maybe I was just born at the wrong moment, at a time where technology and social media were only just beginning to become the pervasive presence that they are in everyday life today.

Either way, I’m glad that my parents have rethought their attitudes and are adopting a more lenient strategy when it comes to regulating my brothers’ internet use. They have clearly seen the positive effects the internet can have in terms of affording opportunities for entrepreneurship and creativity. My youngest brother now uses lots of online resources and programmes to code in his spare time at home. They aren’t over policing my brother’s internet use, but they have made it clear that they are happy to answer any questions about the things that they encounter online. They continue to make sure that school work takes precedence over ‘rubbish telly’ and Xbox playing, but they have clearly accepted that sometimes it is OK for kids not to be 100% productive — my brothers will end up doing some revision if they want to do well in their exams.

As a parent in the digital age, I think that’s all they can really do.

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The Indiependent Founder, NCTJ qualified journalist, Oxford University grad. Interested in tech, political communication & data ethics. Tweets: @BettyKirkers

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