Ensuring Core Parenting Skills Online – and Offline.

Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of Mothers’ Union, explains why parents shouldn’t shy away from conversations about technology.

“I couldn’t possibly talk to the kids about that. They know far more than I do.” I hear those few sentences almost more than any other when I speak to parents about their children and teenagers in Mothers’ Union parents' groups. It used to be said in the context of sex education 30 years ago: today it is much more likely to be about the digital world.

Many of us can relate to the scene in the BBC comedy programme Outnumbered where mum is screaming with frustration at the laptop and eventually hands it over to her young son and suggests he installs the Parental Controls as she simply cannot do it.

The sad thing is that the refusal to talk to children about sex and relationships was certainly noting to do with young people knowing more than their parents. Now, our nervousness about talking about the digital world betrays a similar lack of confidence when it comes to engaging with our children about areas of life that may be complicated and, perhaps, embarrassing.

Communicaton is key

Most parents talk to their children about road safety – certainly, we see it as a prime responsibility before we allow our children to go out into the physical world on their own.  Yet technology offers a huge opportunity for young people to travel far and wide in the virtual world and sometimes we do not take the same common sense precautions, perhaps because we feel uncomfortable with where the conversation may lead.

In 2011, I carried out a review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood at the request of the Prime Minister. I was asked to look into this issue because so many parents are concerned that their children are coming under pressure to become consumers and that the world they live in is increasingly sexualised.

The internet plays a major part in this and, in my report, called Letting Children Be Children I argued – with a lot of support from parents and young people – that Parental Controls should be made easier to set up and that any web-enabled device or service should require the user to answer the question “Would you like to set up filters to screen out inappropriate material?” at the point of purchase.

I always knew that some people would be able to circumvent those filters if they wanted and I did not want parents to have a false sense of security. What seemed to me to be most important was that parents and carers be nudged into having a conversation with their children about personal safety, about privacy, and about some of the less attractive material available on the internet, such as violence, hardcore pornography and self-harming websites. That conversation goes a long way in helping make our young people more aware and more resilient.

I am also keen to see age ratings applied to currently excempted videos particularly music videos, which received strong criticism in our Call for Evidence, and  am delighted that the current Government is moving forward on this issue.

ParentPort

Following my recommendation that there should be one single website where parents can complain about any TV programme, advert, website, product or service if they feel it is not appropriate for children, ParentPort was launched in late 2011. Run by the UK’s media regulators including the Advertising Standards Authority and OfCom, ParentPort aims to help protect children from unsuitable material on TV, in films, on the internet and in other media.

Since its launch, ParentPort has done much to address the issue of making parents’ concerns heard, but I am disappointed that the research published by the Chartered Institute of Marketing in June 2012 showed that 85 per cent of parents remained unaware of ParentPort. More needs to be done to raise the awareness of this important tool for parents.

What children need

As digital technology plays an increasingly important role in our lives, core parenting skills are still important. Giving a child a sense of belonging, teaching them about interdependence as well as independence and having the confidence to offer a sense of meaning to their lives remain crucial.

Over the years I have seen those parents who get this have the joy of seeing their children develop a sense of emotional resilience and well being to deal, not just with the virtual world, but also the real world in which we still spend most of our time.

 

Original full-length article appeared in Digital Parenting (issue 2), which can be accessed from our article Keeping Your Child Safe Online. Used with kind permission Vodafone's Digital Parenting magazine 2012.