Do digital children need digital parents?

Quite a few of us at Unthinkable are parents. Our professional lives are spent thinking about how to create the best digital solutions and experiences for the people we work with. But we are also surrounded by young people living in this digital world we are creating. It can be confusing, joyous, counter-intuitive even, to try to understand how young people are making use of the technology around them – most of it supplied by us the parents.

 

Right now I’m trying to work out how I feel about my nine and seven year old boys deciding they want to be YouTubers. Obviously they’re not waiting to see how I feel and are insisting I set them up with the cameras, software and accounts and help them develop their presenting and editing skills immediately. I’m trying to put the brakes on without them noticing, but I also want to make use of their self-driven desire to learn. For it’s exactly that desire which motivates me to learn, and I want to fan the flames, but I’m also worried. I have watched a few of their favourite YouTubers and am having a hard time recognising their verbal incontinence as a useful skill. But is this perhaps unfair of me? I’m also not comfortable with them developing public personas right now. It feels way too early – around 25 years old feel about right to me!

I know first-hand how addictive digital games can be, and the power they can have in commanding attention, as I am self-confessed gamer. But when I witness my kids losing hours to Minecraft I suddenly panic. Is this really productive for them, should I even be worried about them being productive, how will their homework be able to compete for their attention? But maybe it is homework that should be more captivating, not games that should be more boring?

The life of digital parent is a balancing act. On the one hand are the immense possibilities that digital technology offers for learning, growth, expressivity, the development of identity and the connection to supportive communities. On the other is the fear that connecting young people to the world too soon is dangerous, that even in peer groups the worst of our human behaviour can prevail and cause real damage. Thank goodness for academics like Professor Sonia Livingstone and her colleagues at LSE who are working hard to present much better evidence, clear analysis and guidance at a moment when the mainstream media are so good at magnifying an often irrational fear among us – and offering us little in the way of proactive and positive approaches parents can learn from. Big charities like Barnados are also trying to do their bit to understand a fast changing environment and calmly put the key facts in the public’s hands.

It is with that complex, delicate and critical backdrop that we have decided to dedicate our next theme to the concept of digital parenting, and of course digital childhood. It is borderline cliché to think of our times as being unlike any other, presenting unique challenges for which there are no obvious well-understood solutions. But I think in the case of how parents and their children can find a way to make the very most of their digital tools together and build a positive culture, we really are creating something new. We hope to shine a light over the key issues as we see them over the next few months, including a mix of guest posts, interviews and thoughts from the Unthinkable team.

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