The advice we would give less than 10 years ago to parents wanting to protect their children was to put the family computer in the living room so that internet use could be easily monitored.
Enter Steve Jobs and the rise of the smartphone, and this advice has been rendered obsolete. Digital technology is advancing at an incredible speed, and it will take some time for society to adjust – and adjust it will.
As parents, though, time is a luxury we simply don’t have. Our children need our help and guidance now, not in five, 10 or 15 years’ time when it will be too late.
The digital age brings many advantages and wonderful opportunities. Long journeys with bored children and endless games of I-Spy are now a thing of the past.
Learning opportunities are so much greater – no longer limited to children with access to books in the home. We can connect with friends across the city and families around the world.
And what parent hasn’t breathed a sigh of relief when putting a child in front of a screen during the “happy hour” – 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. – when blood sugar is running low, sibling rivalry is at its peak, and the pasta is not yet on the table.
But alongside the advantages, there are a number of challenges.
The issue of screen time, for instance, causes many rows at home – you may be tearing your hair out right now with your 3-year-old having an iPaddy or a teenager who appears to be surgically attached to their cell phone.
Along with worries about screen time, many parents are rightly concerned about the more serious dangers of pornography, sexting, internet addiction and grooming, not to mention the relentless pressure on children of social media and the selfie culture.
From their infancy, our role as parents is to teach our children life skills that will keep them safe.
We teach them to tie shoelaces, cross the road and swim – we have these skills ourselves, so we can pass them on.
But when it comes to digital technology, many of us feel our children know more than we do, and we have no idea how to keep a step ahead.
Most parents today will be what experts call “digital visitors.” We use technology as a tool – going online to check the train times, do a grocery shop or send an email.
In contrast, most young people are “digital residents” – digital technology is an integrated part of their lives.
As “visitors,” even if we digest a digital dictionary and learn acronyms such as “PCM” (please call me) or, more importantly, “POS” (parent over shoulder), we’ll never be as at home in the digital world as those who live there. It involves a different attitude and approach to life. And therein lies the challenge.
While we don’t need to be experts, we can do things not only to protect our children from the dangers, but also to help them make the most of what the digital world has to offer.
When they are little, we put sharp knives and the bleach out of their reach. In the same way, we can use passwords, filters and parental controls to keep our children safe online.
Many families have found it helpful to sit down together and create a “family media agreement”- age-appropriate guidelines in line with their family values that everyone, including parents (here’s the challenge!), signs up to.
Boundaries around internet use at home are vital, especially with younger teenagers, but they only go so far.
What about when our children are out and about, when we aren’t there? Unless we equip them to deal with the issues, they will only be as safe as the least protected child they know.
Ultimately, our task as parents isn’t about raising children or even teenagers; it’s about raising adults. We do this by passing on wisdom and values in the context of family life.
The saying that “values are more often caught than taught” is so true; we may think our children aren’t listening to us, but the truth is they don’t miss a thing.
We are their role models, and little by little, through conversations, time spent together and the everyday ups and downs of family life, we sow values into their lives, which become their reference point when they make their own decisions in years to come.
The writer of the book of Proverbs says, “Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom (Proverbs 4:6-7).
Our role as parents is a positive one. Instead of being naysayers who limit our children’s options, we can teach them to manage their freedom well, training and empowering them to make good choices in a world where all choices are possible.
Katharine Hill is United Kingdom director for Care for the Family. She speaks and writes on family matters. Her latest book is called “Left to Their Own Devices?” where she explores the impact of the digital world on teenagers and younger children. A version of this article appeared in the Autumn 2017 edition of Baptists Together magazine. It is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @KatharineMHill.