Raising children in a digital age
'Enjoying the best, avoiding the worst' is the tag line to Dr Bex Lewis' new book, 'Raising Children in a Digital Age'. I attended the book launch last night and heard Dr Lewis talk about the fact that, while other books focus on the dangers, she prefers to come from the angle of celebrating the positives while also ensuring people are well informed.
The book is not designed simply to provide parenting advice. Rather it is about helping parents and carers to understand the digital environment better.
Dr Lewis hates the fact that people refer to the internet as a 'virtual space'. It is not, she insists: "It is a real space where people have real interactions, often mixed with their offline actions."
She believes parents and other carers need to become more informed and therefore more confident about helping children engage with all things digital.
Last night Dr Lewis spoke about the fact that the media tends to focus on the scare stories, which perpetuates parents' anxiety about the online world. The dangers are obviously very real – ironically after hearing Dr Lewis speak I watched the news and heard a coroner urging the government to take action about web safety. The coroner in the case of Tallulah Wilson, the 15-year-old girl who took her own life after posting self-harm pictures on Tumblr, also issued a report in which she stated: "Although Tallulah was treated by a number of healthcare professionals, no person who gave evidence felt they had a good enough understanding of the evolving way that the internet is used by young people, most particularly in terms of the online life that is quite separate from the rest of life."
It is this type of horror story that shocks parents and makes them uneasy about their children's use of the internet. Indeed Safer Internet Day last week highlighted some of the statistics, with a BBC Learning poll finding that one in five children having been upset by something they have seen online in the last year, and teenagers aged 13 to 16 being more vulnerable to cyber bullying than younger children, even though parents worry less about the internet use of that age group.
While Dr Lewis agrees such events and statistics are horrific, she is adamant that they are very much in the minority - which is why they make the news - and that we should not throw the baby out with the bath water as it were.
"We need to understand the realities of the situation online, to ensure that debates about child digital safety are balanced with an understanding of how children truly engage with the digital spaces, and an appreciation of the benefits of digital engagement."
Indeed the BBC Learning poll highlighted the fact that, while 90% of parents surveyed said they had talked about online safety to their children, they still allowed them online unsupervised.
The book looks at a range of the stories highlighted by the headlines and then looks behind those headlines, to see which stories are worth paying attention to and which need debunking.
Dr Lewis grew up in a Brethren home where she wasn't allowed a TV. She readily admits that it probably made her a stronger reader than many of her peers, but said that when she was finally allowed a TV she was a voracious watcher to begin with but quickly became selective about what she watched – and often went back to her books.
As a Research Fellow in Social Media and Online Learning, as well as a regular blogger with her own social media consultancy, Digital Fingerprint, Dr Bex has well and truly embraced the digital age and now has over 17 years' worth of experience.
She believes that "technology makes things possible; it doesn't make it inevitable", and that what happens online is "human nature amplified". It is about behavioural issues rather than technology.
Dr Bex points out that any new technological development in history has caused a moral panic in the general public, but agrees that the speed of developments in the digital arena has meant that parents can feel scared and totally at a loss.
However she believes that if parents pass that feeling onto their children their kids will feel they cannot speak to them about it, and will also be worried that their internet use will be taken away from them – their biggest fear.
Her main argument is that we need to "normalise not demonise". Technology is a part of everyday life and so we should keep the lines of communication open with our children so that they feel they can speak to us about their internet usage – and we can catch any problems when they first appear.
She reaffirms parents, saying that they have not lost control. They are still the parents even when their kids are online. It is all about balance - the internet is "a tool you can use". But parents do need to take the time to be more informed and stay with their children when they first start using the internet.
She uses the analogy of swimming: "I'm always keen to balance opportunities with responsibility. If I took children swimming, I'd check that they could swim or had armbands if necessary. In the same way, before sending a child online, I'd check to see whether they had any previous experience, and what support they needed."
Throughout the book Dr Lewis provides quotes from parents with children of all ages so that readers can see the approaches other parents are using, and also addresses any concerns and questions raised.
As a lecturer she says she has seen first hand the social benefits of digital media, but also recognises there is a lot of poor information out there.
The book was written to make academic research accessible, provide quality information, and help parents become confident enough to enjoy the digital environment with their children.
I asked Dr Bex what her top tips for parents would be:
1. Conversation, conversation, conversation: if they can talk to you then they are less likely to seek affirmation elsewhere.
2. Know your child: you can recognise if they are exhibiting 'strange' behaviour and this can help you to step in early on.
3. Boundaries: parents have always had to say 'no' – you can say no with regards to online behaviour too, it is not an un-navigable space.
4. Discover – view this as an adventure and, if in doubt, use Google!
5. Don't try and do it all on your own – share tips and experiences with other parents and see how they do it.
Dr Lewis's book has already had huge interest in the national press and appeared in the Amazon top 1000. So what is her hope for it?
"The most important thing for me is that people will read the book, and feel encouraged and empowered. If both adults and children take time to have conversations about the issues in the book - exercises are provided - they can make the most of the positive opportunities that the internet offers, while maintaining a healthy respect for the digital environment."
'Raising Children in a Digital Age' is available from 21 February from Lion Hudson.