Empowering parents in the digital age: book with strategies and tools for navigating online with children

Paolo Celot, European Association for Viewers Interests (EAVI)

Observing children playing outside or walking to school on their own is becoming rare. Children represent about one in five of the EU population, one in three internet users, and 90% of them are online. Most school-aged children spend half of their free time in front of a screen. Digital devices are available from a very early age. Social media, video, games, and apps are accessed both at home and on the move. As children get excited about new things that they discover online, some parents complain about their inability to focus on one specific task for an extended period of time and sometimes about their struggle to interact in person with other people.

Adults, too, are fully immersed in the digital environment. Rarely though, do young and older people appear to live the same experiences or share the same spaces online and use the media together. It can still happen that a family plays a game in the living room, but the time when we were sitting on a sofa watching a TV programme together seems now gone forever.

Each family member has their own habits and it is difficult for parents to know what their children are doing exactly with their devices. This new incertitude makes parents feel anxious, inadequate and powerless: “Is it safe? Is it suitable for my child? Is she missing something, not watching the same video as her friends? What should I do?”. Incidentally – to be fair to children, when parents were busy and put their convenience first, they did not seem so worried about using screens to keep children quiet and occupied. Nowadays instead, they appear more confused and disoriented in their daily efforts and are not sure where to seek expert guidance and advice.

To fulfill this need, the European Safe Online Initiative (ESOI) has published this year an open-access book on how they could better learn to support their children’s digital lives. The scope of the book is therefore to illustrate the experience of ESOI engaging with hundreds of parents across five different countries and offer reflections on the broad subject of online media use by children, focusing on the role of parents. Since 2020 ESOI has provided an opportunity for exchanging practices, know-how and opinions with other experts, with relevant organisations and public institutions. Those considerations embraced multiple interrelated dimensions and levels of discussion, and some are reported in the book.

Although the book often refers to parenting, a family is not necessarily just mum and dad, brothers and sisters. Authors intend families as inclusive groups in a large sense of the term: any kind and type of family, married or not, single parents, extended to grandparents, uncles or cousins etc. and above all, they stress the importance of being present and available, depending on everyone’s possibilities, for their children.

The research behind this book consisted of an exploration of parenting in the digital environment was mainly qualitative, and it has no ambition to provide any rigorous conclusion. Indeed, for a more detailed and precise evaluation, further reflections should also consider more variables, for instance, that parents are different from each other. This diversity is due to differing cultural, economic and social backgrounds as well as individual personalities, experiences, values and styles (some research suggests that parents of different nationalities react differently to the same online risks and harms). Children also differ from each other by age, gender, attitudes and practices. Furthermore, the environment they are immersed in is dynamic and unequal regarding the possibility of accessing the internet, the media in general and managing digital devices. This is particularly true for those belonging to disadvantaged segments of the population. For multiple reasons thus, parenting is not one-size-fits-all, and different approaches may work well for some and not for others.

Still, while the conclusions of this book can only be partial, findings showed that within the same categories, children in Greece, Bulgaria, Belgium, Romania and Cyprus live pretty much similar digital lives. Therefore, it was decided that the reported experiences could be similar to those encountered by many other parents across Europe and would offer useful elements to reflect upon.

Download the book at this link.