Spotlight On: Growing up in a Digital Environment

18 November 2022


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 18 November, 2022

“The digital environment was conceived as an environment for adult users. Not even its inventors thought it might one day be a place where childhood would be spent. Nor did they make any design concessions for child users. On the contrary, the utopian vision was that all users would be equal. And if all users are equal, then a child user is treated as if they were an adult”. 

An extract from the report: “Digital Childhood Addressing Childhood Development Milestones in the Digital Environment.”  

This is a powerful reminder that as adults we need to consider our role in managing our child’s experience in the digital environment. This report is interesting because it not only addresses key developmental milestones and the appropriate use of technology but also draws attention to our social behaviours.

Navigating this digital landscape is complex, but our child’s wellbeing in this is space is of high importance and as parents we must be prepared to take the reins and do more to construct the digital habits of our children. Have we unthinkingly conformed to social norms that are setting up our children with digital habits that are not in their best interest? 

One place to start is by reflecting on our own habits.

How often is the time spent with our child disrupted by the phone? 

Is the spontaneity of conversation in the car or on a walk being replaced with silence as we allow our phones to take precedence. Are our behaviours suggesting to our children that digital conversations trump face-to-face conversations? Are we really present as we watch a family movie or are we being distracted by the phone or iPad? 

Are we losing the art of conversation - how often does our child see us, head down texting? Children have always listened to their parents’ conversations. It is an opportunity to learn and consider the importance of tone, the appropriateness of language, the skills of negotiation – one that is potentially under threat from new social norms of digital use.

As adults we can understand that social media, designed as a channel for social approval, is also a vehicle for mass social judgement - but do our children?

For children, family is their greatest ally and home is their safest haven. Yet as adults we can inadvertently expose them to judgment and risk as we celebrate our families’ moments on social media. Research suggests that these platforms are both exciting and anxiety-provoking, especially for a child of 9, 11 or 13. We are yet to develop a clear understanding of the impact of such digital habits on our children. Do we need large numbers of people to view their world? Do we stop and ask our children if they want their image shared? It is a stark contrast to the time, not very long ago, when the family photos were only accessed in the album acquiring dust on the bookshelf.

As parents we are mindful of the developmental needs of our children, we understand the need for growing autonomy and independence, and we stand by important benchmarks. We determine the age when sleepovers begin; when they head to the mall for their first shopping expedition; we may even hope to determine the appropriate age for a first date. But we also have a new responsibility to understand the needs of our children in the digital world and the impact of our behaviours and the implicit messages. Whatever impact we may be having on our 10-year-old will pale in comparison to that we have by the time that same child turns 15.

In dealing with this new complexity in parenting, we need to stop and pause but we are not on our own. Valuable resources are available to help. In particular, the  website of the eSafety Commissioner provides information and webinars for parents on topics such as cyber bullying, screen time, online porn and building good habits.

Some of our greatest family memories are made with the simplest activities: driving up the coast, playing board games, Friday night movies, going to the beach, or the Sunday BBQ.  These activities still have the capacity to bring us together - if we let them.