Not so long ago, most parents had decided to buy mobiles, tabs, or laptops for their children’s personal use after a certain age. In the interim, they allowed intermittent access to their devices at their discretion. For parents, it basically meant exercising control, monitoring their safety and regulating how much time they spent online.
Apart from their utilitarian roles, these devices had assumed the image of being a bad influence so keeping them away or reducing their screen time was a priority. Safety meant teaching them—not to play games or talk to strangers, not uploading images online, not to share personal details, etc. In some instances, parents further kept tabs by granting them access through parental logins which automatically permitted them to check watch history.
This responsible parenting style built a sense of security. In their minds, children remained as children who needed their guidance, support and direction.
But the pandemic robbed parents of this discretionary choice. With work from home, online teaching and learning, giving children their own devices have become a necessity. Even preschoolers have online classes! It has been reported that the demand for desktops, laptops and tablets have increased from 1 per family to 1 per person. Suddenly the parenting world has been turned on its head and parents are seen struggling to make sense of it all.
For parents, this has literally meant the loss of control at multiple levels:
• The decision-making power to debate the necessity and thereby ascertain for themselves the “right age” to give children ready access to devices is no longer needed.
• Initially, devices were “handed over” to keep children occupied while parents were busy. But now what feels more pressurising is that their continual access automatically instils the need to constantly check-up on how they’re keeping themselves occupied!
• Personal devices reflect autonomy. Parenting requires allowing children to make age-appropriate decisions. When autonomy is willingly given, it feels acceptable. There’s a comfort knowing you’re encouraging them to make small decisions for themselves. There’s fear now when you see them not waiting for your permission as they navigate through their devices with ease.
• Simultaneously autonomy initiates defining boundaries for self and in relationship to others. From being the ones to select which games (preferably educational) to download, now it’s children who are finding the ones that interest them or those that their peers suggest. They no longer ask for explanations but find ways themselves. Although they might still need your access to download yet suddenly, you’re faced with the notion that they don’t “need you” as much as you would want to believe.
• Children are fast learners. As they’re taught to navigate through applications and productivity tools, they also proactively learn ways of beating the system to perhaps escape the drudgery of online learning. Their technical know-how isn’t limited by their parents’ understanding. They’re experimental and open to making mistakes. It makes parents face the moral dilemma of wanting to applaud their thinking capacity while simultaneously teaching them the right from wrong.
• Children have the bad habit of growing up! Parents are prone to overlooking this fact and wanting to hold on to them. It’s their need to ensure their presence in their children’s lives. Letting go is the hardest part of parenting.
Parental understanding stems from their growing up years which ascribed having access to a device as part of becoming a professional or beginning work life. Many perhaps still remember saving up money to buy their first desktop or laptops. It was aspirational and created a sense of achievement.
Of course, parents clearly understand that children are being educated using these devices within the safety of their home. They accept their role in providing for their children and feel privileged at being able to do so. Perhaps they had assumed that nothing would change yet suddenly are forced to acknowledge that a lot has changed for them.
The pandemic has quickened the pace and shrunk the space for parents who assumed they had time on their hand to face such emotional upheaval at a later stage, perhaps during teen years. Earlier, the gradual developmental phases softened the blow for them as their children slowly attained adulthood.
But the pandemic drastically challenged the status quo, parenting notion and styles. It has brought in a newer dimension which calls for even more maturity, flexibility and mutual respect on the part of parents. It’s time to refrain from creating confusions between teaching values with the ease and utility of technology. It’s about making the distinction that screen time is an acceptable part of life now. Access to knowledge, entertainment, creativity all happens through the screen. It has opened up a completely new exciting world for their children. So, its influence needs to be steered and managed to reduce the potential impacts on physical health and strengthen cyber safety rules.
It’s a learning phase for parents too. They need to be patient and forgive themselves as they navigate through newer parenting standards and guidelines which personally work for them.
The writer is a mental health counsellor and blogger.