Lisa Sanders used to monitor her twin boys’ computer and video game screen time by physically watching them. That all changed in July when she bought iPhones for the twins’ 12th birthday.
That’s when her tracking “went into high gear,” says the resident of Silver Spring, Maryland. Sanders bought the smartphones in part for their parental controls on the family plan. “They are too young to have unfettered access,” she says. To limit the boys’ time on their shared laptop and Xbox, she added a security appliance that can automatically shut off Wi-Fi access. The twins also must let her follow them on Instagram.
Supervising kids has changed in the digital age, especially with iGen children who only know life with mobile phones. Parents today need a combination of street smarts and tech-savvy that might even challenge James Bond.
“It’s a new frontier for parents,” says Janet Oak, senior vice president-deputy head of media development at Ipsos. “There’s confusion on how and how much to monitor. They didn’t experience all this technology when they were children.”
Parents of preteens are slightly more concerned than parents of other ages about TV content, music and video game content, according to the Spring 2018 Ipsos LMX Family study. It’s a syndicated longitudinal tracking study of 4,630 parents and their children from ages 0 to 17 about their technology ownership and media usage. Oak will present more findings on iGen youth in a webinar on September 27.
Minding the gap
This age also is a potential blind spot for parents as kids are likely getting their first phones. Research shows that this is when parents start to give children more responsibility to monitor themselves, says Oak.
Parents are most restrictive with preschoolers as 60 percent don’t allow kids online, or they monitor alongside the child. From ages 6 to 12, just a quarter of parents are this restrictive. Similarly, with social media, 83 percent of parents of preschoolers are restrictive. That falls to half for preteens.
“Parents probably should be monitoring even more after age 6 because their kids’ online behavior is maybe riskier,” she says. “You don’t want them to see pornographic materials or other unsavory content. Plus, as kids get older, they may be bullied online or posting pictures that can ruin lives.” More than a quarter of American parents say their child has experienced cyberbullying. Two-thirds of it happens in social networks and nearly half on mobile.
That’s even more reason for parents to supervise from an early age. Overall, parents are most watchful with websites that their preteens visit, according to a November 2017 Ipsos survey of youth ages 10 to 13. Online, two in five parents check their kids’ whereabouts. About a third of parents review the photos and videos that kids post. Another three in 10 parents check social media followers, phone callers and contacts. One in five parents checks emails.
“As kids get older, the pictures and videos they post matter more and tend to be more controversial,” says Oak. “It matters more because they’re getting closer to college and jobs and things they’re doing get riskier. It’s very well known that colleges are looking at Facebook pages.”
Despite the growth of parental control apps and tools, some apps have other ways to block supervision. Snapchat has an “eyes-only” vault with its own password, says Oak. “My kids won’t let me follow their finsta accounts,” she adds.
Finding the right balance
Either extreme of monitoring can backfire, says Alex Salkever, who co-wrote, “Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain–and How to Fight Back.”
He considers himself moderately restrictive about his two teens’ online and mobile behavior. “If we were to see pretty bad stuff happening, we’d be concerned,” he says. “But I feel really strongly that you can’t over-police this.”
What concerns him more is online bullying. “That’s where kids are the most vulnerable,” he says. “I also worry much more about replacement behavior,” he says. By that he means that screen time replaces real life or talking to people face-to-face, or participating in exercise and sports, or reading books or any recreational reading. “Replacing those behaviors is unhealthy,” he says.
Lisa Sanders agrees. Her kids would “spend hours in front of their devices if they could,” she says. “They should be out playing. They should be reading a book and basically doing other things.”