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Supporting Parents in the Digital Age

Dr Jaqueline Harding shares some of the research findings which led to the creation of Tomorrowschildtv, a new online channel providing digital safeguarding advice for parents

Today’s parents are facing many new challenges and safeguarding issues once their children become active online. Dr Jacqueline Harding has launched an online TV channel specifically for parents who are concerned about protecting their children online.

There’s little doubt that many parents are feeling overwhelmed about how to support their children in the digital age as confirmed by my own recent small scale study in 2018 and other larger studies (Livingstone, 2018).

In an attempt to meet parents’ needs using a familiar format and one that parents often feel is more accessible, Tomorrowschildtv was built as a pilot online channel for parents of children from birth to 18 years, with over 40 films designed to help and support parents in the digital age led by a former BBC presenter with parents, experts and children debating specific issues. It was filmed at Middlesex University by students and is launching 29th November 2019.

In agreement with Livingstone’s (2018) observations of the lack of support for parents, my study revealed anxiety right across all age ranges. Indeed, Ofcom’s study (2017) revealed a similar picture where more than three quarters of parents of 5-15 year olds have sought information about how to manage online risks.

Addressing Parents’ Concerns

In answer to questions about identification of specific help/advice regarding media that a parent might seek out regarding these matters, answers typically fell into the following four broad categories: safety; behaviour; time restrictions and educational opportunities.

Several parents expressed similar concerns and the need for sources of help around behaviour and media with most parents admitting to feeling like a ‘bad parent’ or wishing not to appear negligent (this was a reason for seeking help). Parents commented on the lack of advice available about suitable lengths of time for their children to spend on a particular media device:

“I need to know how much screen time is too much?”

Although overwhelmingly, parents were primarily concerned about online safety regardless of age, parents of younger children tended to speak of their fear increasing as their child matures. Typically, parents reported feeling anxious:

“Desperate, yes, I’d say I was desperate for help.”

“They are so quick… they minimize the screen…I need support from someone who knows about these things.”

“I won’t allow a phone until secondary school – it’s too worrying – although there is less about stranger danger nowadays it’s more fear about online.”

“I heard about a child in the media…they were bullied online and committed suicide… it’s so worrying.”

“I worry about YouTube videos with inappropriate content still coming up even with parental controls.”

“I’m worried about my child (six years old) and her use of apps to insult people.”

“Access to porn had such a bad impact on my child – it caused him to act up at a later age.” (child now 13)

“I caught my child being the abuser online – I was shocked…”

The study found agreement with Livingstone’s (2018:11) enquiry into where parents might turn for advice about digital media where answers differed according to the age of the child. Parents of younger children were more confident of where to search for help and spoke of seeking help on Google, Mumsnet, CBeebies, Facebook mums’ groups, forums, and from peers. Others suggested that the responsibility shifts to the child as they mature: “My own children will get advice when they are older at primary school.”

Parents of children in the 6-12 year age range spoke of going to the school and asking for help. This also correlated with Ofcom’s (2017) study, where 61% of parents seek help or advice from their child’s school. In the study a number of other parents felt unable to seek help from their own parents) as:

“They wouldn’t know what to do… all this stuff happened after their time,”

and continued by trying to offer suggestions such as: “Kids YouTube might help… maybe; or a neighbour?”

Parents of 12-18 year olds were the most puzzled and felt unable to think of where to begin to access help, and three parents with children ranging between 13 and 17 years, were openly bewildered about where to access help.

Feeling helpless

Ofcom’s recent study (2017: 209) found that ‘one in six parents of 12-15 year olds feel they don’t know enough to help their child manage online risks’. One parent stated: “I guess I feel pretty helpless.”

In response to questions around a dedicated online TV channel for parents providing support – the responses were overwhelmingly positive. Some participants were even anxious to ensure that other parents would know about the resource by suggesting that it must be discoverable. The majority of responses to the suggestion of an online video-based platform tended to suggest the level of anxiety that parents were experiencing:

“I’m desperate for help”

“Online TV great…so it’s available on my phone.”

“Definitely yes.”

In light of Livingstone’s (2018) comments: ‘parents have woefully few sources of support and advice when they have digital questions and dilemmas,’ the parents’ responses in our study were unsurprising.

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