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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

“Digital is the default”: Digital Families 2019 Conference highlights

Updated: Oct 17, 2019

News flash: for children and young people, the digital world is risky and full of challenges but also full of promise and opportunity for them to flourish. A few key insights from the Digital Families 2019: Wellbeing In A Connected World conference run by Parent Zone on 9 October on empowering young people and supporting parents…

• “I want parents in school more. For the No Outsiders programme, we got parents in small groups and said: ‘We want you on board! Our lessons say: We’re all different and we all belong. They’re for children to be confident in who they are – if they have freckles, if they’re from Poland… It’s great to be straight as well, and old people are fun too!’ Some parents feel that Elmer the elephant will make you gay because of the rainbow colours. I disagree. A lad in year 6 once asked me: ‘Why do you choose to be gay?’ I asked him: ‘Why do you choose to have brown skin?’ The message I give the kids is: in the UK we can have different ideas and beliefs. We might not agree, but we have respect” – assistant head teacher Andrew Moffat

• “We should fight for young people’s digital rights. We also need parents to be supportive, because teenagers develop autonomy and their self-image online and children use the internet for entertainment, socialising and education. It contributes to how they grow up and helps them flourish. The UK needs to recognise that parents are real stakeholders – they need resources and we need to invest in them. Parents should focus on doing more listening with their children” – Vicki Shotbolt, Parent Zone CEO

• “What’s standing in the way of leveraging technology to support young people’s mental health? Well, adults are at fault – they have double standards about using technology. And young people are aware of the risks of technology but not the opportunities. So let’s change the register of the conversation” – Professor Amanda Third

• “Parents are the biggest influence on their children’s lives. But there is no quick fix for issues around technology. Parents shouldn’t treat all screen time as being the same. We need to stop scaremongering and stop telling parents to police their kids’ spare time. Don’t spy on your kids or ban their pleasure” – LSE professor Sonia Livingstone

• “Digital is a default. What you do digitally, and how, is different if you’re 9, 12 or 15. Via digital channels young people seek support, expression and information. Parents and teachers are not always best positioned to help them. The peer element is important – young people can connect in an anonymous and open way” Chris Martin, CEO of under-25s support service The Mix

From the Mental Health: Youth Perspective panel discussion

  • “I didn’t talk to my family because I didn’t feel listened to. Listen to young people – they are the experts. They’ve grown up and changed during this digital age”

  • “Young people would rather appear unique than real online”

  • “I got overwhelmed by social media. I was cycling through apps in a loop of being entertained but I couldn’t escape. It gave me anxiety and depression so I did a detox”

  • “Instagram allowed me to feel expressive, confident and represented as a gay Pakistani guy from Slough”

  • “The internet can be used for good. Communities form online that young people want to contribute back to”

• Parents need to engage with children so they become responsible digital citizens – but parents struggle to keep up with the latest trends, says clinical psychologist Professor Tanya Byron, who conducted the 2007 Byron Review entitled Safer Children In a Digital World (and who is incensed, 10 years on, by what hasn’t been put into place). Explaining that 53% of 3- and 4-year-olds are online, and that 50% of children have a smartphone by age 10, she says:

“If you buy your kids tech, know what you’re dealing with. That’s a core responsibility for parents. Children aren’t immune to being vulnerable online. And these days children’s radius of play is reduced – they’re raised in captivity, so they do their risk-taking online. Do you have boundaries about online engagement? We have to say no and set limits. It’s hard to negotiate the architecture of the online world – just as it is with the offline world. But we have to empower ourselves and have conversations about sexting; we have to explain the law relating to minors. I’d rather have a child whose innocence bubble is slightly broken but who is safe and can make informed decisions. Why aren’t you talking to your children? Who is supposed to be having the conversation?

To be very clear: I don’t think social media is responsible for mental-health issues. We are seeing kids coming in for help who are not from deprived backgrounds, so they don’t have those mental-health risk factors, but rather they’re from privileged, aspirational families with helicopter and ‘curling’ parents who sweep obstacles out of their kids’ way.

Parents feel helpless. There’s no one-stop shop but there is enough information out there. Parents are a resource, not a problem. Let’s be more imaginative and creative in our conversations – they can come at different times, but they have to happen. We have to keep reinforcing these messages. It’s tough, but being a parent is tough. One day my kids will write a book about me: Professor Tanya Byron: Great With Other People’s Kids, Not With Her Own.

Fear gets in the way of rational thought. But we need to understand the world our kids are going into. It’s a dark and scary place. You can feel: ‘I don’t know what they’re doing and they don’t want to talk.’ But children need to feel heard. Listen. Ask them to help us learn – and empower them to be good digital citizens”

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