Is technology a help or a hindrance to family life?

Emma Robertson (Co-Founder, Digital Awareness UK) considers the potential and the pitfalls

At Digital Awareness UK, we get the opportunity to ask parents at HMC Member schools questions like this every day in our workshops. The answers we receive are varied, but often come to a similar conclusion – parents are trying to embrace all the fantastic opportunities technology has to offer, whilst simultaneously battling with the challenges it presents!

The proliferation of technology use in family life means we can Skype with distant relatives, document and share precious family moments or hear in an instant if there’s an emergency. At the same time some feel technology isolates us, exposes us to dangers, leaves us always wanting more and is an unwelcome distraction to daily life.

Wherever you sit within this debate, it’s more critical now than it ever has been for parents to take control of how technology is influencing family life.

We launched the Tech Control campaign in partnership with HMC (search ‘Tech Control’ to find out more) to drive awareness of the importance of being in control of the ways in which we use our technology. This is as important in family life as it is in our individual use.

Of all the trends currently being bandied around in the digital parenting space, ‘technoference’ (the extent to which technology disrupts family life) and ‘sharenting’ (parents sharing excessive amounts of information about their children on social media) are two of the most critical issues both parents and students are asking us to tackle. Examples of both these behaviours can be seen in the Tech Control 1 YouTube video we filmed with HMC in 2017.

These trends are particularly interesting to us because they highlight the importance of modelling good behaviours to children as well as using technology consciously and mindfully. In 2017 we conducted research in partnership with HMC which found that over a third of 11 – 18 year-olds regularly have to ask their parents to stop checking their own devices.

Today it’s rare for us to deliver a parent workshop without hearing frustrated comments about the relentless negotiation involved in prising children away from their devices or fears about how they post without fear of consequence. However it’s equally rare for us to deliver a student workshop without hearing frustrated comments from children about how their parents are using devices at dinner tables or posting embarrassing photos of them on social media.

In 2007 when Apple launched its first iPhone, the family paradigm shifted irrevocably. As guinea pig parents and guinea pig children, we learned largely through trial and error, about the opportunities and pitfalls which technology introduces to family life. Fortunately, we are now much more aware of both the positive and negative impact technology can have on our health and wellbeing. We’ve learned from each other’s experiences and are well informed through the news agenda. It’s interesting that there is more of a varied approach to digital parenting than there was eight years ago when we started our business. This must be because every family is unique and requires a different approach.

After discovering that tech moguls such as Steve Jobs and Bills Gates along with a host of tech titans in Silicon Valley have all but banned technology from family life, we started questioning what restrictions we should have in place. Whether parents believe a draconian approach to device management is what’s needed or that a more lenient approach that encourages self-moderation is more appropriate, families have to find solutions that work best for them.

Whilst there’s little we can be 100% certain of in the digital parenting space, there are some principles of digital parenting that, in our experience, successfully transcend all family types – be engaged, informed and proactive. Encourage your parents to be involved in their children’s digital worlds, give them the tools necessary to understand their digital world (through parent events for example), and empower them to employ proactive strategies in the home that will help their families survive and thrive in the digital world.

Image of a school pupil setting a “Do not disturb” limit on their device whilst studying. Taken from the HMC and Digital Awareness UK “Tech Control” video.

Our top three ‘technoference’ tips:

  • If you feel that technology is having a negative impact on critical moments of the day, it’s invaluable to set boundaries that stop that from happening. If technology is preventing your children from eating, sleeping or studying for example, work with them to set reasonable guidelines that work for your home such as ‘no devices in bedrooms at night’.

  • Whilst it’s helpful to focus on what we are doing with our technology, sometimes we can lose our focus on what we aren’t doing as a result of the technology we use. If you feel technology is preventing your family from being active or socialising for example, agree together on when the family should be taking breaks.

  • Conscious usage is important in all aspects of tech usage, but it’s crucial that we use our technology consciously and mindfully in the family environment. Where possible, always try to question why you are accessing your tech so as to prevent unnecessary use and encourage conscious use through modelling positive behaviours.

Our top three ‘sharenting’ tips:

  • I don’t think we give enough consideration to the secure information we readily share about our children on social media and the potential long term consequences of such sharing. If we share birth announcements, first day at school photos (with school uniforms in shot) and connect with enough family members for example, we may have revealed our child’s date of birth, first school attended and mother’s maiden name. Think carefully what information we share about our children and with whom.

  • Luckily for me, all my embarrassing photos of bath shots, questionable 90s hairstyles and fashion faux pas are locked away in my parents’ corner unit in Sussex! Many children are mortified when they discover the content their parents have willingly shared on social media. What may be adorable or amusing to us may not be felt the same way by our children so always ask for permission before sharing something that they may not feel comfortable with.

  • It’s important to choose your ‘friends’ wisely on social media. If you choose to share private information about your family on social media it’s important to understand exactly who may have access to it. Of course content can never truly be controlled once it has been shared, but if you have ex-colleagues, school friends or friends-of-friends with whom you no longer have much connection it may be worth rethinking your ‘friends list’ before sharing information about your loved ones.

Above all, for families that want to embrace all the fantastic opportunities technology presents, we advise them to make the most of it. It’s not always easy and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but we hear success stories every day from parents who have been able to create nurturing and supportive environments for their children, so that they can enjoy all the benefits technology has to offer.