Technology and Teens – Principles for Digital Parenting
Jocelyn Brewer, cyber psychologist, teacher and creator of Digital Nutrition™ gives you her top five tips on dealing with your teens and technology and how best to navigate the risks and rewards that technology can bring. 

Read time: 7 minutes

Jocelyn Brewer, cyber psychologist, teacher and creator of Digital Nutrition gives you her top five principles for digital parenting and shows you how best to handle your teens and technology and to navigate the risks and rewards that technology can bring.

  1.  Don’t ban, make a plan
  2. Watch your own technology habits
  3. Know what online activities your children are engaging in
  4. Co-play, co-view and have conversations
  5. Don’t sweat the screentime

Digital devices are part of the modern-day learning ecosystem and are central to how we socialise and spend a large part of our leisure time.  Parents of ‘screenagers’ are the first generation to face the challenges of parenting in a hyper-connected, always-on, on-demand, rapidly-changing digital world. 

Adolescence is a time of great emotional, social and cognitive change – the brain is has not fully developed and is wiring up complex connections in the cortex and pre-frontal cortex (the part that sits behind your forehead).  This is the control centre for higher order thinking, planning, rational decision-making and generally being ‘mature’ – skills and habits that we hope young people acquire ASAP (but there is little we can do to rush it)!

The nature of adolescence is to seek novelty, distance from parents and gravitate to their peers, explore and develop their own identity, pursue impulses and learn through practice and exposure to situations (not just being told what they ‘should’ do). For contemporary teenagers their digital presence is a central to who they are and how they communicate, so building healthy, savvy online habits is important.

Many of the headlines around teens and screens paint a bleak picture about the impacts on distraction and learning, and mental health and wellbeing. However, overall research in this space is fragmented and influenced by a range of social and cultural factors, making it difficult to identify exactly how much things like social media are directly impacting mental health.

Rather than freaking-out, I encourage parents to ‘fact-up’ on ways to help protect young people from the risks of excessive tech use, while modelling healthy habits themselves and being actively involved in managing devices. 

Here are some principles to guide your approach to managing technology in your home:

1. Don’t ban, make a plan 

Banning devices is unrealistic for most families. Instead devise a solid plan for how, when and why technology can be used. This might involve having device free dinners together, using technology in common areas and agreeing on a ‘digital sunset’ for when the modem is switched off each night.

Include your children in the process of devising this plan, ask them to come up with ideas on what they believe is fair.Talk about the goals for your plan (which might be to ensure you communicate well, get enough good quality sleep and avoid online dangers and dramas) and be clear on how it works and what the consequences of not following it are.

Effective plans require consistency but some flexibility (for when assignments are due etc). Be wary of how you might use screen time as a reward, and build in the need for offline activities to be part of the week as well (so tech use might be contingent on having completed exercise or other wellbeing activities).

2. Watch your own technology habits

Parents are important role models for young people – and this extends to screen and smart phone use. Be mindful of your own digital habits to ensure you set a valuable example of safe and savvy digital habits – that might mean you also observe a ‘digital sunset’ and are able to disconnect from work emails.

Children and young people don’t necessarily understand that when you’re on your phone you are not just playing games or chatting with friends, but perhaps paying bills or organising elements of the household – by explaining why you’re grabbing for your phone it helps them understand the utility of technology is not just Snap Streaks and Fortnite.

3. Know what online activities your children are engaging in

Many parents have no idea about what content and activities their kids are engaging with online and are shocked when they find out! Its valuable for parents to be actively involved and relatively up to date on some of the trends and practices young people are engaging in online.

When young people want to download new apps or games, you might require them to provide you with a short background report on it, outlining their case for needing it and information on how data is stored or privacy is ensured. Asking them to do some due diligence on understanding what they’re consuming can help both of you!

Encourage conversations about the online activities in which all family members engage, so that you can positively influence online behaviour. Bring curiosity rather than fear or disinterest to these conversations and to understanding why their online world and communities are so cherished.

4. Co-play, co-view and have conversations

Using technology together – by viewing content or playing games – is a good way to prompt meaningful conversations about device use, online activities and interactions. This will help young people make sense of their experiences and build skills to circumvent online issues, which take time, repetition and practice to develop (not just one-off lectures or talks!).

Many parents groan when I suggest you download a game and give it a go, they say they don’t like games, they don’t have time or they don’t ‘get’ it.I’d urge parents to be more playful, to make time to understand more about the digital playgrounds that their children gleefully spend hours in, and to be amazed at how diligently kids work to gain mastery in gaming (in ways we wish they would apply to their maths homework!).

5. Don’t sweat the screentime

Parents can get caught up on the amount of time their children spend online. Yet there is no agreement among experts as to what constitutes excessive time online.  Instead, focus on:

  • the quality of the content (who made the app, game or wrote the blog and why?)
  • the context in which the technology is being used (when alone, in groups, or to pacify a child in a café or in a tantrum?)
  • the cognitions (that is, the mental action) associated with the activity (is it constructive and adaptive or negative or dysfunctional?)
  • the function of the activity (study, connection, info gathering, or other uses?)

Asking these more detailed questions about online activities will help parents make more informed decisions about whether particular technology use is serving their children’s wellbeing and development, and how to help their children manage this tech use.

Jocelyn Brewer is a psychologist and accredited teacher.She researches cyberpsychology at Sydney University and is the founder of Digital Nutrition™.