Hands off my Internet, Dad: Building trust key to knowing what your kids are up to online

Jennifer Shapka
Jennifer Shapka

ALONG with notebooks and pencils, students are also increasingly packing smartphones and tablets in their school backpacks. And while parents may fret about what their teens are doing online, UBC Professor of Human Development Jennifer Shapka says excessive parental controls could actually cause more harm than good.


At what age are children getting smartphones and tablets?


Kids at younger and younger ages are being given access to smartphones and tablets with full access to the Internet. My research last year found that more than 70 per cent of 11- and 12-year-olds have their own smartphones, and I would suspect those rates are even higher at this point. One of the main reasons parent report giving their child a cellphone is for safety, so that they can keep in contact with their child.

For adolescents, mobile devices are one of their main tools for socialization: primarily though texting, as well as social media sites like Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.


What limits should parents place on their children’s use of devices?


We see lots of scary media stories of cyberbullying and of kids being the victims of predators. This leads many parents to have deep fear about what their kids are doing online. Fortunately, most kids are socializing with their friends in healthy and age-appropriate ways. In fact, when kids are told by their parents that the Internet is a scary and unsafe place, it doesn’t resonate and makes them feel like their parents don’t get it.

My research, which looks at cyberbullying, shows that the more parents control or limit or track how their teenagers use the Internet, the more likely those adolescents are to report being engaged in cyberbullying activities. The reality is that if you try to control teenagers’ online behaviour, they’ll go underground with it and keep their online life secret from adults. For example, lots of research is showing that victims of cyberbullying are less likely to go to their parents because they’re afraid that their parents will take their technology away.

A better approach is to have open and caring conversations about socializing online that present a balanced approach of positives and negatives. It’s important that these conversations aren’t fear-based or focused solely on safety.


What advice can you give to parents about teaching their kids to use technology well?


The limits that parents place on their child’s Internet access should adjust with the child’s age. For young children who have no online experience, sit down with them and use the Internet together so that you can model and show them what Google is, what email is, and help them to understand the lay of the land.

As they get older, you need to develop a trusting relationship with your teenager and be a little more hands-off. The goal is to develop enough openness that they will tell you if things go wrong.

If you micro-manage and control their online activities, which is essentially their social world, it really could backfire and you could be out of the loop very quickly. For adolescents, socializing is a normative part of their development. In today’s Information Age, this is happening more and more in online venues. So taking away or limiting and controlling their online access is essentially excluding them from their peer groups.


How much are these devices being used in the classroom?


I think it depends. A lot of teachers do incorporate technology into their classroom, and use it in appropriate ways to enhance learning outcomes. However, there are also many teachers who don’t use technology. A lot depends on the teacher’s comfort level. I think the worst situation is forcing a teacher to use technology even if he or she is not comfortable with it. I worry about the learning benefits in this case.

The age of the students also plays a factor. As kids get older, technology is more likely to be a part of the classroom, and kids are more capable of taking advantage of what the technology has to offer. For very young children, however, I am not convinced that there is any evidence tying the use of technology to better learning outcomes. For example, there are apps that can be used to mimic manipulative learning, such as helping young children learn to write letters. Whether a child practices their letters in the sand or by using a tablet will probably not impact their ability to learn their letters. I’m not sure one way is better or worse.