Challenges of parental responsibility in the digital age: a global perspective
11 Dec 2017
Two boys from Iraq laugh while using their cellular phones as they wait with their mother at a refugee processing centre in Vienna, Austria, where their family is applying for asylum.
Children everywhere are gaining access to the internet – most often via a mobile phone. In many places, too, parents are feeling challenged in their competence, role and authority. Distinctively, internet access is bringing children access also to valued sources of knowledge and connection that their parents may lack. How are parents responding?
A digital parenting divideResearch in high income countries points to a shift away from restrictive forms of parental mediation such as banning the technology or telling their children off when a problem occurs. Instead, it seems parents are increasingly using enabling forms of mediation such as sharing some online experiences with their children and guiding them in the use of privacy settings, advice services and critical evaluation of online content and behaviour. This shift is influenced by parents’ own growing experience with and expertise in using digital media. It’s also the outcome of several years’ worth of multi-stakeholder efforts to raise parental awareness and encourage their engagement, often led by governments and child welfare organisations.1024"]
Peer advocates communicate with their friends on phone in Nyalenda neighbourhood in the city of Kisumu, Kenya. Their organization, Sauti Skika, is an initiative for and by young people living with HIV, to ensure the voices of young people and adolescents living with HIV are heard.But in middle and low income countries, it seems that parents favour restrictive mediation. This is partly because some cultures are more authoritarian in their parenting style (especially in relation to daughters). It’s partly because, in the absence of supportive resources, anxious parents feel their only recourse is to protect their children by limiting their access. It’s also because the wider public debate has yet to embrace a conception of children as active citizens and, therefore now, also as digital citizens.Even talking of parents – a common target of awareness-raising actions in the global North – is not straightforward as many children in developing countries are being brought up by relatives, often grandparents. For example, in Africa and, to a lesser extent in Latin America and the Caribbean, children are much more likely to live with either one or neither of their parents than children in other regions. Factors such as migration, illness, parental death often mean that parents and caregivers are left with few resources and insufficient time to help children with their digital skills. Schools are also challenged: in the least developed countries school attendance is low, pupil/teacher ratios are high, and overcrowded classrooms and untrained teachers are commonplace. It seems fair to conclude that in many countries, children lack a supportive and/or informed adult in their lives who can teach them to navigate the internet safely, or offer support when needed.
...the wider public debate has yet to embrace a conception of children as active citizens and, therefore now, also as digital citizens.
New research findingsUnderstanding the real constraints families and children face in the digital world is the first step towards finding effective strategies that both parents and children can use to maximise opportunities and minimise risks. We are currently tracking the activities and experiences of children and parents in the digital age as part of our research project Global Kids Online - a multinational research collaboration of the UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and the EU Kids Online network in partnership with researchers and UNICEF country offices from all over the world. Working within a child rights framework, the aim is to generate robust evidence that can stimulate debate and inform policy and practice regarding children’s internet use in diverse countries.
Gabriela Vlad, 17, (Left) uses her phone to speak with her mother at the dinner table at the home of her foster mother Tatiana Gribincea (right) in the village of Porumbeni on the outskirts of Chisinau in Moldova, Monday 16 October 2017. Her biological mother has gone abroad to find employment.In addition to asking children what they do online, how often and for how long, what skills they have and risks they face, we ask them who they turn to for support if they experience something negative online. Strikingly, the majority of children from the seven countries presented below would turn to friends first, to parents second, and rarely to teachers or other professionals. For parents this is broadly positive news. Although on average, parents’ level of digital skill is equivalent to that of a 14 year old child, as our research from Bulgaria, Montenegro and South Africa shows. What seems to count more is that children trust their parents’ ability to provide guidance and support.It’s notable that children in European countries are more likely to tell a parent if they experience a problem online, than in other parts of the world. Perhaps this reflects a more encouraging emphasis on enabling rather than restriction among European parents. Certainly it suggest the need for greater investment in support and guidance of parents in the global South. More worrying is children’s apparent lack of trust in teachers and professionals. This makes us wonder if they are even available to children to the degree we would want them to be, and further, how confident children may be that these professionals are able to provide the right advice.
Note: 9-17 year olds in all countries except 13-17 year olds in Argentina. Also, samples in Serbia and the Philippines were small pilot surveys; in South Africa a convenience sample was used; in all other countries, the sample is nationally representative. For more methodological details, see www.globalkidsonline.net/results
How to support parents to support children?If parents’ primary method of protecting children is through restricting access, this can be effective in keeping children safe, but it carries costs as regards children’s opportunities online. The restrictive approach can potentially undermine children's opportunity to build digital skills and resilience in ways that will help them face and manage risky experiences in the future. So what advice can we give parents? What are the roles and skills they need to have in the digital world? Do parenting principles and practices we used before the technological boom still apply?In 2007 the World Health Organization (WHO) developed a framework that examines key dimensions of parenting and parental roles that positively affect adolescent well-being:
- Connection (building a positive, stable, emotional bond between parent and child)
- Behaviour control (including supervision and guidance of children’s actions within a trusting relationship)
- Respect for individuality of the child, especially as an adolescent
- Modelling appropriate behaviour (since children identify with and emulate their parents)
- Provision and protection (by parents and also the wider community)
- For more on parenting in relation to digital media.
- For more on Global Kids Online’s findings around the world.
- For more on children’s rights and wellbeing in the digital age, see State of the World's Children 2017