Mobile Technology + Internet = Minefield for Parents

With today’s kids increasingly accessing the web from mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, iPods and other gadgets, it’s more important than ever for parents to stay connected. Derek Abma reports.

Ever since Elvis Presley shook his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, parents have had anxiety about the kind of media content their kids are exposed to. Since then, the sources of anxiety have grown exponentially.

On one hand, the extent to which boundaries need to be pushed to get the attention of youth has expanded, as has the quantity of material that’s out there.

In the ‘50s, parents could simply change the channel or turn off the TV to prevent their kids from seeing Elvis shake what his momma gave him. As the decades passed, it became more complicated with the advent of cable TV, VCRs and DVD players, and eventually the Internet.

Now we have a situation where kids are equipped with handheld devices capable of accessing the Internet from anywhere there is a signal, and discretely consuming an endless selection of entertainment, no matter how questionable.

Thierry Plante, media education specialist with an Ottawa-based organization called MediaSmarts, says his group’s research shows a clear trend over the last decade of kids increasingly accessing the Internet from mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, iPods and other gadgets.

By being able to move from room-to-room with these things, parents are more challenged than ever to keep track of what their kids are seeing, he says.

“It makes it more difficult because now they can access the Internet from anywhere, really, from a variety of devices,” he says.

Dr. Alyson Shaw, a CHEO physician and member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s digital-health task force, agrees.

“We definitely see that mobile devices are everywhere around us, compared to years ago when there was just the one or maybe a few televisions in the home that parents could supervise,” she says.

Plante notes that generations of kids have found ways to access material such as pornography or violent movies outside their parents’ purview. But he agrees that the Internet has made this much easier, and the content that’s out there now is more extreme than ever.

Martin Rovers, a family therapist with Capital Choice Counselling, says he has concerns about the endless amount of sexual and violent content that’s available online and how easily kids can access it.

“There’s a lot of times we should worry, in terms of whatever it is they see on the Internet or predators on the Internet,” he says.

He says parents should be vigilant about monitoring what their kids are accessing online. One advantage parents have is that the Internet leaves an electronic footprint of what children are seeing.

Despite best efforts to monitor content, Rovers says, children will almost inevitably come across stuff you wish they didn’t, just as children in past eras found ways to watch R-rated moves or browse through Playboy magazines.

He says honest communication between parents and their children about what they might see on the Internet can help put it in perspective for them.

“I don’t believe you’ll keep them away from the Internet so you need to prepare them for the Internet,” Rovers says.

“They will sneak around, and they’ve got a bigger world to sneak into than we had, but it’s still that guidance or that story you tell them about what to be careful about in life … it’s still back to parenting and staying connected.”

Plante compares the situation to protecting your children from the dangers of water.

“There was a researcher, I think it was in the States, who said if you’re afraid of your children drowning in water, you have two choices; you can put fences around all the pools or teach them how to swim,” Plante says. “Our approach is more on the teach-them-how-to-swim side.”

Shaw says from a health perspective, her biggest concerns about children’s use of mobile technology is how it cuts into time that might be spent being active, leading to an increased risk of obesity, and how it can supplant other types of educational or interactive activities, affecting intellectual development.

In terms of content, Shaw cites the potential for cyberbullying on mobile devices as a chief concern.

She recommends parents start preparing, even at the prenatal stages, to have a plan in place for their children in terms of when and where screen time is appropriate, and plan to carefully supervise what their children access.

“A child who’s unsupervised on the Internet can really access anything, so we would encourage parents, as much as possible, to be present when screens are used and to co-view with their child so that they’re aware of what their children are accessing, and to discuss it with them, both the good and bad aspects,” she says.

Setting standards early can help kids establish good media habits that they keep in later years, Shaw adds.

“The hope would be that if parents are laying the ground rules early on and really coaching their children in what’s appropriate media use, they’ll have some influence even when their children are outside the home.”