Having taken Vodafone’s Digital Family Pledge, news presenter Alex Beard discusses how to navigate the potentially treacherous waters of digital parenting.
Parenting in the digital age can feel like I am trying to run the length of a swimming pool on top of inflatables. I am desperate to stay above water but every step I take feels wobbly and unsure, and I swear everyone on the sun-loungers is judging me.
For a lot of parenting quandaries, I can just refer to my own parents for guidance – what did they do in that scenario? Unfortunately, that cheat-sheet doesn’t exist for my generation because the digital world is a new and ever changing challenge – and one I am frankly terrified of. The truth is, I don’t always get it right for myself but now I have to be the moral authority for my kids too.
Here’s the kicker - screens can provide welcome respite for the frazzled parent. Even if you decide to have a screen-free home, they can be found everywhere else – from school, to friends’ houses and even in libraries. As parents, we are expected to know what the boundaries are, but everyone’s boundaries will inevitably be different.
My kids are still young enough that they don’t have their own devices. They watch TV in the living room, they can play the odd game on our iPad, and when the going gets really tough, they might be allowed to watch an episode of Shawn the Sheep on my phone as we drive somewhere. Just when we thought we had found a happy balance, our four year old worked out he can ask our Google Home Hub to play anything he likes on any screen in the house. Cue my husband and I furiously researching how to turn on parental controls, so we never have to hear Baby Shark ever again.
Limiting our kids’ device use is one thing but really, I should be leading by example – and I know I’m not. Working for myself is a total privilege and I am at home all day every day, but my phone is my office. Instagram is where my money is made – it relies on me creating content, staying connected and sending endless emails, and that is all done on my phone. So yes, I am with my kids every day, but I can be a distracted parent – half working, half playing. I had turned on the ‘screen time limit’ but I felt so terrible pressing ‘ignore’ before lunchtime rolls around, and when the weekly reports came in telling me how long I spend on my phone each day, so I turned it off. Sometimes, when the guilt gets too much, I might delete Instagram off my phone for a big portion of the day. It helps to put me back in the room. It shouldn’t take that, but it does. It is hard to regulate my screen time when there are no fixed hours or boundaries to my work and home life.
Like so many other parents, I really struggle with the thought of being judged. If my kids are happily playing in soft play, I use that time to get work done. I see parents getting fully immersed in the experience and that’s great, but if I can use the opportunity to get a solid 45 minutes of work done, isn’t that a good use of time too? The alternative is I pay someone else for childcare and I take myself off and work on my own – nobody would judge me for that. I realise most of these worries are in my head, mum guilt is real, but there is some science behind my paranoia. A recent article in the Independent referenced a study that found a third of children aged eight to 13 felt unimportant when their parents used a phone during meals, conversations and during other family time. I felt a mixture of relief and familiar guilt when reading this. We don’t allow screens at mealtimes, and this has always been a hard rule in our house, making it much easier to enforce. But I wish all rules were as simple to stick to.
Doing the Vodafone Digital Family Pledge really helped me assess my own screen activity. I am guilty of charging my phone by the side of my bed and every night I spend the last 20 minutes before sleep scrolling and the first 10 in the morning. This is something I would never let my own kids do. It’s a terrible example to set and one I am going to try and stop before my kids reach an age where they’ll have their own devices. I have pledged to charge my phone outside my bedroom, which I know will be better for me and my sleep, but that doesn’t mean I’ll find it easy. I am trying to break a habit I have had since I got my first phone.
I know technology is going to become a bigger part of our lives as it progresses, and as my kids grow up. With this in mind – and for anyone else thinking about how to become a better digital role model – here are some things I know I’m going to be especially mindful of for my family:
- Pay more attention to my own screen time, asking myself ‘can it wait until the kids are asleep?’
- Be less concerned about how long my kids spend on devices and more concerned with what they are doing on them – it’s about quality, not quantity
- Check parental controls on all devices are set to the appropriate level for our children
- Enforce bedroom bans for all devices, including for all adults in the house
- Have more dedicated tech-free time
If your family hasn’t discussed how you use tech and what you do online, I would definitely encourage you to make a Digital Family Pledge of your own. Find 10 minutes when everyone can gather and sit together, and go through this educational and interactive tool that covers everything from social media to gaming and being kind online. You’ll come out with a set of bespoke pledges for your family to stick to, which you can print and stick to the fridge to act as a daily reminder.