Providing parents with information about the digital world and all of its challenges is important, but the amount of information available is overwhelming – a quick Google search using the phrase ‘internet safety’ returns 95,600,000 results. In this information-rich environment, we need to focus on which information is likely to ensure that children remain safe while also making sure they benefit from the opportunities of the digital world. Vicki Shotbolt, founder and CEO of Parent Zone, focuses on this challenge, supporting parents with their digital parenting. [Header image credit: A. Humphreys, CC BY-ND 2.0]

The complexity of internet safety

The UK government’s Green Paper on internet safety suggests we should encourage parents to tackle internet safety in the same way they tackle other risks, like road safety. While there is a plethora of road safety-inspired campaigns hoping to give children a simple set of instructions, the difficulty is that learning to flourish in a digital world requires a great deal more than a simple set of skills. Not only is it much more complicated than our road network, it isn’t static. The devices, platforms and functionality that give us access to the internet are evolving at an astonishing rate.

For example, Dr Victoria Nash at the Oxford Internet Institute is leading a project looking at the changing nature of the companies children are interacting with online – everything from a child’s Barbie doll to their Lego bricks will have a digital dimension. The potential risks and harms that might result have yet to be fully realised, much less communicated to parents.

A ‘road safety’-based approach to the internet fails to reflect the complex behavioural and emotional challenges of life online. While no one worries that a child might become addicted to crossing the road, such concerns do exist about the internet.

So how do we respond?

At Parent Zone, we start by asking: what works to improve outcomes for children? ‘Good enough’ parenting.

Research into effective parenting styles dates back to the 1960s, with Diane Baumrind’s pioneering work. She identified authoritative, authoritarian and permissive parenting. Of the three, authoritative parenting resulted in the best outcomes. In the early 1980s Maccoby and Martin added a fourth style – uninvolved parenting. This analysis has been applied to parental mediation of the internet by Sonia Livingstone and colleagues.

We take what works in parenting as our foundation for helping parents keep children safe online because the quality of at-home parenting has a profound effect on young people’s outcomes, from education to digital resilience, health to risk-taking behaviours.

Supporting ‘good enough’ parenting makes sense and yet, in internet safety terms, it is a challenge we continue to struggle with. Applying an evidence-based parenting lens quickly highlights how often information campaigns inadvertently nudge parents to a parenting style that may not be the most effective:

  • Promoting filters and monitoring software can easily, if inadvertently, encourage authoritarian parenting
  • Telling parents their children know more than they ever will about technology, because children are ‘digital natives’, can easily steer parents towards the uninvolved end of the parenting spectrum.

Authoritative digital parenting

Our task is to help parents become authoritative digital parents instead of taking overly authoritarian or underinvolved approaches to their children’s media use. Authoritative digital parenting means:

  • Providing high levels of warmth
  • Giving children the space to make mistakes
  • High expectations
  • Age-appropriate, negotiated boundaries.

This can be difficult, as parents will need to feel well informed about the risks and potential upsides of any given task or situation so they can discuss, explore and negotiate with their children. It is far easier to align with simple safety messages. Even in the face of such growing parental nervousness, Parent Zone has developed a multi-faceted approach that starts with the basics of ‘good enough’ parenting to promote authoritative parenting.

Building parental knowledge and confidence

To look at how we can build parental knowledge and confidence about the risks and benefits of the internet for children and young people, in 2015 we launched Parent Info in partnership with the CEOP command of the national crime agency,  to provide parents with information on all of the issues that are caused or amplified by the internet. Crucially we built it so that the information could be delivered where parents already are, via the sources they already trust – their own child’s school website, where schools integrate Parent Info as a newsfeed on their websites. Parent Info has over 270 articles written by experts. The most accessed include content on LGBGT issues, mental health including self-harm and sex and relationships. Parent Info doesn’t tell parents how to parent but it makes sure that they have all the information needed to make informed parenting choices.

Providing support to parents

The most confident, authoritative parent in the world still needs support and validation when life becomes difficult for their child. The issues parents bring to us are more often questions that are multi-faceted, including emotional concerns – ‘my child is really upset and I don’t know what I can do to help him/her’ – alongside practical problems – ‘an account has been set up in his/her name and I have no way to help him/her close it’. Sometimes a parent needs simple validation, an answer to the ‘am I doing the right thing?’ question, and sometimes they need signposting to services that can help a child who has or is experiencing harm. Providing support to parents is absolutely critical, not just to help resolve problems for those families, but because parents who are stressed are less likely to provide ‘good enough’ parenting, and thus a problematic cycle of inadequate parenting may begin.

Looking forward

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety is rightly credited with being an important model, and yet we have some distance to travel before we can actually claim to be supporting families effectively with the challenges and dilemmas of a digital age. We need to move to an authoritative, digital, parent-friendly, child-centred approach to internet safety support and away from attempts to find a ‘road safety quick fix’. We are making progress, but we need to move as quickly as the internet, in order to help parents get ahead.

This post gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.