Photo: George Frey/Bloomberg
Photo: George Frey/Bloomberg

How to approach online parenting

By CARA LE MOTTEE Time of article published Dec 12, 2016

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Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and internet use have increasingly become an integral part of today’s society, resulting in people spending an ever-increasing amount of time online, and South Africa is no 

New communication tools have become central to the way young people live their lives, raising important questions about the impact of the time children spend online, and finding the balance between online opportunities and risks they may encounter.

This widespread use of digital technology and the internet by the youth of today has resulted in concern around safety issues, which they may encounter.

During the 16 Days of Activism for no violence against women and children, which ran until December 10, awareness around children’s online safety was an important issue.

A new study on Digital Parenting supported by Facebook and recently launched by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP), looks at how South African parents view their children’s use of ICTs, and provides insight into what the major concerns for parents are, including privacy issues, exposure to potentially harmful content, cyberbullying, harassment and sexual victimisation.

However, many parents also recognise that technology offers their children a number of benefits, such as helping them stay informed and improve their school performance. This recognition by parents of the potential benefits is why they provide and allow their children the use of technology.

The challenge for parents here is what they introduce into their children’s lives in these platforms because they offer a vast array of benefits, while at the same time introducing platforms which puts their children at risk of a number of dangers.

Therefore, parents are faced with the task of managing, or mediating these two opposing sides in a way which will best provide protection for their children from harm, while not taking away from the potential of the opportunities.

Parental mediation refers to various ways which parents try to manage their children’s interactions with media and technology, of which the ultimate aim (minimising potential risks, while 
maximising potential opportunities) should be in the best interest of the child.

Parents are not always clear and consistent about the how and why of their parental mediation strategies, and a number of factors – such as lack of time, resources and knowledge – often make the difference between good intentions, and what is actually put into practice on a daily basis.

It’s important that a balance is found between monitoring and managing young people’s online behaviour while also allowing them the freedom to handle their internet use responsibly.

Parents need to carefully navigating this task allowing their children independent online exploration while providing appropriate parental support and oversight.

Little is known about who uses ICTs in most developing countries, what these ICTs are used for and what the effects are.

This limited knowledge on how ICTs and the internet are being used, particularly by children and youth, poses a challenge when it comes to ensuring these technologies are being utilised in the best possible and safest ways.

While digital literacy continues to rise exponentially in South Africa and across the continent, as ICTs and the internet become more accessible and widely used by the general population, it’s clear that there are large gaps and extensive challenges regarding digital parenting in local communities.

The recent study on Digital Parenting, together with the South African kids Online study (also conducted by CJCP earlier this year), further explore such issues, and have begun to reveal where the problems may lie, opening up the possibility to start formulating solutions that are specifically designed to cater for South African society.

Youth are more likely to use the internet than their parents, which has implications in parents being able to effectively mediate their children’s use.

There is a clear generational gap, as many children are far more advanced in their digital knowledge and skill than their parents.

As a result, parents often struggle to manage their children’s online activity (or in some cases engage with them about it at all).

While the supposedly obvious solution would be to increase these parents’ digital literacy levels, this may not be the best overall solution, and is certainly not feasible on such a large scale.

Instead, online parenting should be approached in the same way that off-line parenting should be done – by developing safe, stable, open and nurturing relationships between parents and their children, focusing on bringing up confident, responsible, empathetic and resilient young members of society, whether it be on- or off-line.

Parents cannot protect their children from all possible online risk experiences without also limiting their potential to discover experiences, which promote this developmental growth. It is therefore important to give less focus toward risk behaviour and more to factors which may contribute toward risk-coping behaviours.

 Le Mottee is a researcher for the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP)

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