How the Internet Challenges Traditional Parent-Child Roles

Children and teens swim in an ocean of technology. It is their natural environment. Parents, on the other hand, often feel like fish out of water. In 2009 alone, 47 million new websites went up. That’s nearly two new websites going up every second. Parents ask us: How can I possibly keep up with the all the changes?

They have been called “Generation Y,” or the “Millennials,” but others have named this generation after their association with technology: the “Digital Natives.” This phrase, coined by Marc Prensky, describes today’s students—K through college—who have grown up with digital technology.

Some splice this demographic up even further, marking those born starting in the early to mid-90s as Generation Z. These are the true digital natives, those have never known a time without the Internet. They are, as Mark McCrindle says, “the most information-intensive generation of all time.”

Parents as Digital Immigrants

In his book, Flickering Pixels, Shane Hipps likens today’s parents to Benjamin Button, adult in body but toddler-like in mind when it comes to this digital landscape. “To many adult minds,” writes Hipps, “the digital land is a foreign country with strange languages, norms, and practices. Parents are undocumented immigrants, while their kids are native citizens of the land and serve as interpreters and gatekeepers.”

This, Hipps says, is the first time in human history where we see this role reversal. We have moved from a print-based culture to an image-based one. When the printing press was developed, the printed word empowered adults. Children had to learn about the world of the written word. The printed word held the keys to adult information. It took years to learn the skill of reading, and years more to master it.

The electronic age, Hipps argues, began the shift. Children and adults have access to the same TV and radio media. “Broadcast media pulled back the curtain to reveal the mysteries of the adult world formerly hidden in the pages of books, and in doing so thoroughly changed parent/child power dynamics.”

The world of digital media continued the changes. “The situation has now been inverted,” writes Hipps, “Adults are disappearing, and children hold the power. Parents today strain for glimpses inside the mysterious world of their teenager’s digital life. For the first time in history, teens are able to lock parents out of more than their rooms. It appears adults are getting younger, just not in the way they hoped for.

The digital world, furthermore, is a world of unimaginable freedom. It allows access to nearly anyone and anything. And when parents strain to even understand it, this means they lack the power to provide oversight, boundaries, or direction to their kids.

How can parents take control?

Social media gurus like danah boyd, Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, think parents just need to continue to give kids their space online. After hearing about a 17-year-old whose parents forbid her from being on Facebook, danah writes:

I regularly hear parents talk about how they want to keep their kids off of Facebook for any number of reasons. It kills me to hear this because they don’t understand that they’re pushing their kids to choose between social status and parental obedience. I don’t know whether or not this story is true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I’ve watched too many teens be pushed into a corner by over-protective parents who think that they’re doing the right thing for their kids. But there’s nothing like social ostracization to increase depression. And I’ve heard too many stories from teens’ therapists about how parents are often a huge part of the problem.

If you’re a parent, please think twice before you get all control-freak on your teen kids. They need space to engage with friends in a healthy manner. And regardless of how you grew up, that means the Internet today. Exclusion isn’t a solution.

Shane Hipps, however, is more on the cautious side. He says parents need to control their child’s introduction to the Internet and social media:

Establishing technology boundaries is not easy. For one thing, our kids will always know more than us. But the greater challenge comes from parents’ best intentions. Parents may fear their kids will be left out or left behind if they restrict access to technology. Parents want their children to become familiar with the digital world so they’ll be prepared to navigate it and succeed in this life. Parents realize that their kids connect with friends increasingly through digital means, and they don’t want their kids left out of the tribe.

I’m sympathetic to these concerns, but there is a flaw in this logic. In many ways our kids don’t need help with technology. They are digital natives; this is the air they breathe, it’s all around them. My 2-year-old already knows how to use a mouse. Our kids will figure technology out intuitively, just like the rest of us did.

On the issue of being left out socially, we should remember that digital space is the most anemic form of social interaction available. It is severely truncated, unsupervised, and easily addictive. During the most crucial stage of social and emotional development, being left out of this is a good thing.

Regardless of how people choose to set boundaries in their own families, one thing is clear: This unprecedented empowerment of youth, along with our image-fueled obsession with beauty, is a dangerous cocktail. In a culture that worships youth, what incentive do our kids have to ever grow up?

What do you think? How can parents maintain authority in the digital divide? When and how should parents allow their children to begin interacting in the world of online communication?

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For more information about taking control of the Internet in your home and bridging this digital divide, you might be interested in taking part in our free 1-hour webinar, “5 Hidden Dangers Facing You and Your Family Right Now.” Covenant Eyes commissioned an independent research company to study the threats and uncover strategies to keep families safe online. Click here to sign up!