Technological changes have always created challenges for parents. As early as the 1920s, parents were lamenting new technology: the automobile and the telephone created unsurpassed social freedoms for teenagers, and parents didn’t know what to do. As the authors of Middletown note, writing in 1929, “the swiftly moving environment and multiplied occasions for contacts outside the home are making it more difficult to secure adherences to established group sanctions,” which were understood as the “approved ways of the group” acquired in “a ‘good’ home.” The car and the telephone made parents feel like they were losing control and influence over their children.
Although the forms have changed, parents still complain about how new technologies limit their influence. In interviews with 100 parents around the United States, even though we did not ask directly about technology, it came up frequently. Parents generally talked about challenges with technology when we asked if parenting is harder or easier today than in the past, or when discussing pressures their kids face.
Not all parents we interviewed are worried about technological transformations, and many who did express worries about some aspects of technology were grateful for other aspects of it. For instance, they are glad that the Internet offers kids increased access to information, and that cell phones allow them to keep in touch with their kids when they’re not at home. Moreover, parents themselves use and enjoy many of these media technologies. (And of course there are no simple formulas; see It’s Complicated, danah boyd’s new book on teens and social media for more on the complexity of these matters.)
But on the main, parents in our interviews express anxieties about the pace and scope of change due to media technologies. While their articulations are not solely negative, over two-thirds (67 percent) of parents express some type of concern about media technologies and their effects on children. The proportion of parents with concerns is fairly consistent across demographic categories—education, gender, ethnicity, and political affiliation.
So what are parents worried about?
The primary concern of worried parents is the unlimited access media technologies have to family life. It is difficult, if not impossible, for parents to monitor and control all of the varied messages and images that reach children through the continuous waves of technology. The struggle for these parents is over influence: technologies reduce the strength and legitimacy of parental influence while increasing influences from a host of unknown and often unwanted sources.
Technologies reduce the legitimacy of parental influence while increasing influences from unknown and often unwanted sources.
Some parents think new media technologies prompt kids to “grow up too fast.” Alison, a married white mother of two teens, expressed concerns about Facebook shared by many. She thinks Facebook brings “exposure to a lot of things that you’d just as soon they weren’t quite exposed to yet as far as sex, drinking, language, whether you’re going to date.” While she realizes many of these pressures have always been there, it’s now “accelerated somewhat because of social media.”
Other parents point to increased mechanisms for inappropriate and negative interactions between peers. Kyra, a married mother of three children of Middle Eastern descent, knows that gossip and rumors are a part of teen culture, but now you can text or “throw it on…You Tube or Facebook…it’s just more viral now.” Negative interactions that may have been private in the past can quickly become very public. She wonders how she can manage that as a parent.
Parents are also concerned that the amount of digital options inhibits outside play. Judy, a married black mother of three, says: “Kids don’t go out and play like they used to. I don’t see anybody playing jacks, jumping rope, hopscotch. What happened to all of that?” She goes on to complain that devices have “taken over my entire house” and she lists them: Wii, Playstation, Xbox, iPods, and netbooks. Most of these devices were strewn around us as we sat on the living room couch.
As these parents’ comments demonstrate, they feel like the technological world that confronts them and their children is different than the world in which they were raised. Of course, we are all prone to somewhat nostalgic memories of our own childhoods, and there were undoubtedly new technologies and challenges two or three decades ago when these respondents were children. But these parents from a variety of walks of life articulate a palpable anxiety as they discuss raising their children.
During several interviews (like the one with Judy above), as I sat on the couch in the respondent’s living room, listening to them lament the challenges of technology, I looked around the room to see several laptops, gaming systems, large flat screen TVs, cell phones, and more. I couldn’t help but wonder: maybe it’s such a problem because we’re surrounded by it. Why not get rid of some of it? Why not turn it off? Why not set some limits?
The technologies parents find so challenging in raising children enable precisely the things we cherish.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended just that in a policy statement issued last fall. They suggest parents control the quantity (less than an hour or two a day of screen time) and content of various media their children consume, keep gadgets out of kids’ bedrooms, and model appropriate behavior by limiting their own technology use. (This last one may perhaps be more important than most parents wish to acknowledge.)
Though parents may differ on particular rules, this seems like good advice to address their concerns. One wonders why more parents don’t actually put it into practice, especially with more concrete guidance available in books like The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. The short answer is it’s exceedingly challenging. Digital media are pervasive. Limits are not easy to introduce or enforce.
But there may also be a deeper, more fundamental reason for the challenge. Technology itself is about transcending limits—limits of space, time, efficiency, productivity, cost, control, or even the imagination. New technologies increase our freedom, choice, and convenience. And this is exactly why we love them. The technologies parents find so challenging in raising children enable precisely the things we cherish.
Beyond technological advancement, a core feature of modernity is the capacity (or desire) to continuously transcend the limits of our human nature. In such a world, if parents desire to influence their children, they may need to choose limits, for their children and for themselves. Resisting the desire to overcome limits and embracing some self-imposed constraints, as difficult as it is, may be what parents need to navigate the digital age.
Jeffrey S. Dill teaches sociology in the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University in St. David’s, Pennsylvania.