Parenting in the Digital Age

Many parents feel completely overwhelmed with regard to how to manage their children’s interactions with the digital world. With the advent of cell phones, Facebook, online gaming and GPS tracking, the decisions that parents need to make are numerous and often seem very complex. It doesn’t help that many parents lack knowledge and personal experience with phenomena such as social networking websites and text messaging, making it that much more difficult for them to decide what is appropriate and what is not.

Although many of us may wish that we could go back to the era of the home phone, the fact of the matter is that our kids are creatures of media and technology. A recent (2010) study found that kids ages 8-18 spend more time with media (e.g. TV, video games, internet use) than they do with their parents or in school. Parents must realize that this level of media exposure is likely to have at least some effect on children’s emotional, social, and physical development. This same 2010 study found that kids who spent more time with media reported lower grades and lower levels of personal contentment. The children in the study who reported the heaviest media use also reported that they were more likely to get into trouble frequently and that they were often sadder or more bored than those who were less immersed in media.

While this type of data doesn’t allow us to conclude that heavy media usage causes children to develop social, emotional and/or behavioral problems, there are clearly good reasons to be concerned. Thus, parenting in the digital age must extend to the media and technology worlds. It’s critical that we set guidelines for our children that include limits and rules on the use of technology, that we educate them regarding the messages they get from technology and popular entertainment, and that we help them to use technology in responsible and productive ways. Thankfully, research in this area also indicates that parental involvement does matter: children from that same 2010 study whose parents set rules or limited access did spend less time with media than their peers. Similarly, other research shows that media education can help to mitigate the harmful effects of media on children and adolescents, including the effect of exposure to messages about violence and/or substance use.

To get started educating yourself about the media and our children, you can turn to… the internet (of course)! The non-profit website Common Sense Media ( provides a fabulous source of information for parents regarding how to navigate the digital age with our children. Examples of topics that are addressed on this website include: what’s the right age for children to have a cell phone? what should I consider when talking to my child about privacy and the internet? what technology is available to me that can help monitor and/or restrict my child’s access to inappropriate content? The American Academy of Pediatrics also sets guidelines and makes recommendations with regard to parenting, children and the media, which can be accessed at their website (

Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, Ph.D.