Parenting in the digital world

Technology that hailed the possibility of creating stronger connections has created distance

Dr Shelina Bhamani is Assistant Professor, Researcher and Lead for Parenting Education Programme, Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, at The Aga Khan University Hospital

There is no doubt that we live in a world that has seen exponential progress when it comes to the digital enablement of our lives. And that this digital progress has forced us to find a balance to use these advancements to better our lives while fighting the negative impacts that emerge over time. It is a classic double-edged sword situation. In the midst of this conundrum, even as adults, we continue to educate ourselves and wrap our minds around the efforts required to establish a balance. However, many of us are also responsible for parenting our little ones. Parenting in this era requires providing our young with refined critical thinking abilities and emotional strength so they are independent enough to differentiate between decisions that will enhance their lives and those that will harm their lives. On top of that, let’s not forget that we are dealing with a pandemic that overlays its own short-term and long-term impacts on us as individuals, as parents, as well as on our kids. How do we do this in a world that is seeing hyper digital advancements fuelled by the pandemic? Let’s face it, we support one another to guide our collective and individual journeys. We are in this together.

Over the years, the rise of social media, handheld devices and information accessibility has increased the occurrence of depression, anxiety, fear, and isolation in kids from an early age. Technology that hailed the possibility of creating stronger connections has created distance. Parents now have a newfound challenge of building connections with their children, impacting their harmony as a family. It is ironic — the more connected the world has become, the more isolated we feel.

The next pandemic that we are expecting is likely a mental health pandemic. Technology on its own, however, cannot be held responsible for what we are experiencing today or expecting in the future. There are numerous aspects at play here. Evidently, it is firmly believed that there is a significant negative impact on children and teens due to the excessive use of technology as investigated by several researchers and data published in renowned journals. The use of digital devices has been seen to contribute to poor concentration and linked to inhibiting creativity.

Children are being exposed to harmful content earlier on in their lives through games, apps, videos, social media, and other sources. Within this, there is an increased prevalence of sexual predators targeting kids and leading the future generation into the darker corners of the digital world. The impact is often manifested in agitations, hyperactivity, loneliness, or wariness, making it difficult for parents to monitor, support and communicate with the child. Without a doubt, parenting can be difficult in the wake of the malicious and inappropriate content on the internet that is targeted towards our younger generation. The digital age is also drastically changing the demands of children. They demand handheld devices, games and apps influenced by their friends and peer pressure. However, children’s demands are more likely an effect than a cause.

Parents are finding it more difficult to find a balance in their daily lives and, understandably, often resort to the services of “digital nannies” to keep toddlers busy while they finish work, buy groceries or simply distract the child during feeding times. The problem is probably not the gadgets themselves, but the extent of their usage. Establishing boundaries and learning a disciplinarian style of parenting is important both for the children and the parent. For example, children must know that when parents set a rule, they should expect positive behaviours and consequences to reactive and inappropriate behaviours. The science of parenting vouches for an authoritative parenting style. Children of such parents are likely to become responsible adults who feel comfortable and confident in expressing their opinions. A child, who is naturally inquisitive and imitates the adults around him, can be fueled by positive role-modelling. Healthy conversations and productive family time are important aspects that will help in parenting, especially in the modern digital age. Parenting styles are influenced by several factors. Each parent and family use a set of strategies — parenting styles — to control and manage their children’s behaviour. Parenting styles can be influenced by the changing socio-economic factors, cultural and religious practices and differences, personal characteristics, and psychological factors and exposure to the digital world. Parenting styles are mostly unique and can have different impact and outcomes on a child’s mind, heart and behaviour, each of which potentially leaves a lasting impression that can greatly impact the child throughout his or her life.

The modern-day society must be structured on values and principles that uphold the common good, discipline and virtue. Parenting along with the learning environment of the school and the neighbouring community are some of the most primary interactions a child has in early life. Therefore, a society must have inherent values to uphold education, health, parenting and social norms of behaviour. Parenting is a responsibility that must be taught, valued, and practised for the personal and greater good of every individual. Thus, a spectrum of responsible caregiving and professional services are required in society to mould the structure of the society and support positive parenting. The discourse ought to be on how to strike a balance and derive benefit in the digital age through research, communication, and collective action. If the child finds strange content on the internet, (s)he should be able to confide with the parents and look for support on how to respond to it. Parents can transform digital experiences into learning experiences through strategies that maximise the benefit and minimise the threats. Parents must know how to set up parental locks and passwords for apps that are not age appropriate. The use of devices and the duration of use can be monitored to strike a balance. Parents can also engage with the child while using digital devices to role model, interact with the content and to talk about the value of time spent learning, exploring, and interacting with the world through devices. The real matter at hand is to think of children as active citizens in the digital age who will use the devices and internet to influence their perceptions of the world around them.

Thus, our time is in need of family programmes and initiatives. Policies and programmes structure the society and can support parents through their parenting journeys. State legislation and provisions must offer a comprehensive structure inclusive of health, safety, and education infrastructure, as well as policies that empower economic independence and stability for families and children.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2021.

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