Tell us a bit about yourself, Tom…
I've been researching the field of digital worlds and the impact of smartphones, laptops, tablets etcetera on children and young people’s lives for over ten years. So I’ve got pretty hot on knowing what to think about all of this. But then, when my own daughter was about to get her first smartphone, I found myself panicking that I didn’t know what to do as she entered the digital world. It’s difficult to find specific advice for parents because the technology changes so quickly. Parenting in the digital age is a little bit like trying to hit a moving target while shooting in the dark. That’s what inspired me to come up with a model for digital parenting that’s in some ways future proof.
And what did you come up with?
I’ve come up with a model that’s based on the philosophy of virtue ethics. Rather than focusing on the digital technology itself, I looked at the character qualities that can help children adapt to the technology, the human qualities that will help them to flourish in the digital world. Rival moral theories suggest we can manage behaviour through rules or calculating the consequences of actions – what might be called carrots and sticks. My research and others have shown it is hard to enforce rules in the online world, especially because many children use their phones alone and when no one is watching. Likewise it’s hard for children to predict the consequences of their online interactions; they don’t know where a picture or a post might end up either short or long term. So I focus on parenting that builds a child’s character. The key character quality is ‘cyber-wisdom’ – the ability to do the right thing at the right time and especially when no one is watching.
What do you hope to achieve with your new model?
My ambition is to show parents and teachers what they can practically do to help their children to not just survive online, but actually thrive online. I’m hoping to show a way we can help children manage the risks, while embracing the opportunities the internet gives them. I don’t want to be fear mongering; I want to provide a balanced, fair account of the risks and opportunities that reflects the reality of children’s lives today and gives parents, teachers and others some clear markers for how they might educate in the digital age.
Are parents right to be nervous about handing their children phones?
Absolutely – I mean that’s what motivated me to research this issue in the first place. I was aware of just how powerful the technology I was giving my daughter was. This is technology that can almost instantly connect children to anywhere in the world and I think parents should be aware of the short-term upset that one mis-sent picture or post can cause, but also how these contribute to their long-term digital footprint. We actually recently conducted a survey of parents. Their top concerns were around cyberbullying, trolling and some wider wellbeing issues such as self-harm.
Instead of just being scared, though, I want parents to be forearmed and ready to guide their children into the digital world. Doing that means becoming a ‘digital immigrant’. We hear a lot about children today being born digital natives – parents almost need to move into that digital world and live alongside their children.
So the opportunities of children going online still outweigh the risks?
First of all, I think you have to be realistic: digital technology is going to be part and parcel of our children’s lives. It’s going to be crucial to their employability and to them being an engaged, participating citizen. If you think your child is mature enough, that’s a pretty compelling reason for letting them go online. But I also think, recently, connected devices have been one of the unsung heroes of the pandemic. The internet has enabled children to continue learning when they couldn’t go to school and it’s also been a vital source of entertainment and connection.
All of that said, there’s very little convincing empirical evidence to show the overall impact of smartphones on children’s wellbeing. The technology just hasn’t been around long enough to work out the long-term effects. Right now, I think you can say it can be positive and negative at the same time, and therefore we should try to manage the risks and maximise the opportunities.
Which brings us to your new model for doing exactly that. Tell us more…
Well, in that absence of clear research or empirical evidence, we have to rely on more theoretical models. As I’ve said, mine is character based – and there are two halves to it.
This acroynm captures the qualities I believe parents and other educators need to develop. If they can be a Rule-maker, Exemplar, Advisor and Character champion, their children will Thrive online. The road to character starts with enforcing some ground rules, the foundations from which children can develop – for example, when they can use their phone and what content is restricted to them. But rules alone are not sufficient. Children learn from what those around them say and do, so parents also need to be an exemplar of cyber-wisdom – there are lots of examples in my book of how I am constantly modelling to my children certain behaviours. As children become more independent and the rules fall away, parents then become less of a rule-maker and more of an advisor – sometimes taking the lead, sometimes not. Finally, a character champion helps children see why character and cyber-wisdom matter.
This acronym sums up the character qualities a child needs to thrive online: be Thoughtful, be Human, be Reasonable, Have Integrity, Be Virtuous, and be an Exemplar. Being thoughtful means being caring and compassionate, but also reflective. Being human means taking control of technology before it takes control of them. Being reasonable is about being able to deliberate and tackle the daily dilemmas most children face online. Integrity involves understanding how they want to live authentically online and maintaining consistency and coherence over a lifetime. Being virtuous means acquiring the qualities they need to live happy and flourishing digital lives. Being an exemplar means passing on cyber-wisdom to those around them and eventually to future generations.
Has any of that advice changed since you gave your own daughter a phone?
Not really. I’m lucky that I have a daughter I can really trust, so the initial ground rules were less important, but that doesn’t mean things won’t change at any time – things can change very quickly online with just one misplaced post or text.
Have there been any surprises along the way with her?
She’s actually coped much better than I initially feared. I thought it was going to be a much greater leap of faith. One of our ground rules is that we can check in on her messages if we ever want to, but we hardly ever want to. We’ve made her life online a common topic that we talk about quite a lot. That openness and honesty means I’m a lot less worried, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got complacent – as I say, things change quickly with technology.
What are your other ground rules?
We have the standard kind of blockers on inappropriate content and there are rules about not using the phone after a certain time. But most of what we’ve put in place, we’ve tended to do by negotiation. So much of parenting is summed up by that idea of ‘love and boundaries’. Both of those things go into our conversations with our daughter: we try to understand her position and that she’s growing up, but we’re also aware we wouldn’t be being good parents unless there are some boundaries.
And the conversations will continue as she gets older?
Absolutely. That’s very much the REACT model; it’s a kind of journey from ground rules to character. As my daughter develops wisdom and becomes better at dealing with day-to-day dilemmas, the ground rules should fall away.
Have you noticed any common digital parenting mistakes?
I think one of them is being too lax to start with. Some of my parent friends have said they felt they didn’t put enough restrictions on to start with. But this is where digital parenting needs some nuance – because you can over-impose rules too. That’s when children start to look for ways round them; you hear of them getting burner phones that their parents don’t know about.
See the entry into the digital world as a two-way partnership. It's not just handing over a smartphone and telling a child to get on with it. Good digital parenting is about learning from each other, alongside each other, because you’ve got different types of expertise – I now just hand my phone to my daughter whenever I need something tech-y doing to it.
Finally, is it ever a sensible option to just not give your child a phone until they’re an adult?
Yes, I think that can definitely be the case, although I know that's a challenging decision for parents to make particularly because of peer pressure and because so much of children’s social lives happen through phones and social media now. But it’s each and every parents’ own decision. I’m not setting up scriptures about when or how something should happen. I’m also not deterministic that just because a child has a phone, certain things will happen. It really does depend on their wisdom and character. People like Ed Sheeran, Billie Eilish and others have spoken about taking time away from their phones. Ultimately, if a phone is not a benefit in someone’s life, it shouldn’t be in it.
TOM HARRISON’S 3 TIPS FOR NEW DIGITAL PARENTS
Establish the ground rules. These are the foundations for character and they're very hard to put back in place down the line, so start with some clear ground rules which both you and your children really understand.
Expect children to make mistakes. Getting things wrong is part and parcel of growing up. Use mistake as chances to learn. Trying to be an exemplar, encouraging experimentation while offering advice and support, is the best way to deal with them.
Keep a clear focus on character. Look at how your children are developing wisdom and the ability to make the right decision at the right time. This will enable them to go it alone and you to be happy letting them go because you’ll be confident they will maximise the opportunities and minimise the risks of having a smartphone.
THRIVE: How to Cultivate Character So Your Children Can Flourish Online by Tom Harrison is released on 14th January. Pre-order it here.
To mark the launch of the book, there will also be a one-hour online discussion on parenting in the digital age involving politicians, parenting experts and academics. Register to join it here.
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