How digital natives navigate parenting in the internet age

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Parents of all ages often express concern for the safety of their children. Many teach children at an early age about “stranger danger” and the importance of wearing seatbelts and helmets.

While these types of admonitions have helped children stay safe in the real world for decades, the 21st century has brought new challenges for parents raising their children in an ever-changing digital world. Now, as some of the older digital natives (often dubbed Gen Z) are becoming parents themselves, many are searching for ways to control how digital media can and will impact their children.

Digital natives (often dubbed Gen Z) are becoming parents themselves and searching for ways to control how digital media can and will impact their children. (Definition from Dictionary.com/Graphic by Decker Westenburg)

With recent studies linking media consumption to a growing number of real-world problems, it’s not surprising that some parents wish the internet didn’t exist — or at least that they had better control over how their children use it.

According to a Common Sense Media report, teenagers are spending upwards of nine hours a day consuming digital media, with nearly 30% of that time being spent on social media. A JAMA Psychiatry study found that teenagers who spend more than three hours a day on social media are more likely to develop mental health problems such as depression, aggression and anxiety.

A 2018 federal Human Trafficking report documented that the internet was the dominant business model used to lure victims of sex trafficking.

Digital immigrants are people who became familiar with computers, the internet and other digital technology as a young adult or later in life. Both digital native and digital immigrant parents have to navigate digital media usage and behavior within their families. (Definition from Dictionary.com/Graphic by Decker Westenburg)

Online programs such as Zoom and Google Hangouts have become common vernacular during the pandemic. Young children, students and adults alike have been subjected to remote attendance for classes, meetings and even religious services. 

This increased screen time has caused many parents and families to reflect on their own digital media usage and behavior.

Navigating social media and privacy

BYU graduate and mother of four Stephanie McNairy started a personal blog 13 years ago, like many other people she knew at the time. McNairy did not grow up as a digital native, but technology has been present for the entire time she has been a parent. Historically McNairy didn’t use her kids’ first names in her blog posts as a way to keep some privacy, but her position on privacy changed over time. 

“Today, I’m less concerned with privacy because if you really wanted to figure out where I live it can easily be found online,” McNairy said.

McNairy is not alone in her assessment. Nearly 91% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that digital users have “lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies,” according to a study from the Pew Research Center. 

McNairy teaches college students online, which has forced her to balance her professional interests with her social interests of not sharing too much. 

“I’ve been ‘drunk emailed’ in the middle of the night by students, and that is part of the reason I don’t share a lot of personal stuff online, but I still want an online presence for other jobs I’m pursuing,” McNairy said.

McNairy, whose oldest child is 14, said she can understand why some parents who identify as digital natives would share life updates on social media.

“They may be more interested in using social media as a tool for updates because it has always been part of their youth and adult life, while it was only part of my adult life after I started having kids.”

Because of this age gap, McNairy is not inclined to share life updates on social media. 

“I text photos privately to family members,” McNairy said. “I don’t consider my social media accounts as a place for family to find my updates. My family and in-laws live far away and we text photos or FaceTime to say hi on birthdays.”

Savannah Riley, a mother of two and small-business owner, grew up in the digital age but still shared sentiments similar to McNairy’s. Recent online articles have stopped her from sharing photos of her children online.

“I do not feel super comfortable sharing a lot of photos of my kids online,” Riley said. “I used to share more, but read a few too many articles about children’s photos being used for heinous purposes. I just share occasionally now, and sometimes end up deleting them later anyway.”

Riley no longer posts photos of her children’s faces on public pages, but she remains active on her business account which she uses to create connections. “I keep it separate from what I’m doing as a mom, but I also share a little bit of myself and I explain to my kiddos what I’m doing when I take and post pictures of the things I make,” she said.

Increased screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many parents and families to reflect on their own digital media usage and behavior. (Digital illustration by Decker Westenburg)

Jessica Mulder is a BYU-Idaho graduate, stay-at-home mother and digital native with a lot of family in different states. She said with certain safety measures in place, she is comfortable posting on social media.

“I usually share photos and life updates through Facebook. With my parents and siblings, I will share photos and videos through a texting chain. With my husband’s family we just share pictures and updates on Facebook.” 

Mulder feels comfortable using Facebook. “I am very comfortable because I have security measures in place, such as only adding people I know, blocking certain people, and changing privacy settings,” Mulder said. ”I care about my family’s safety, and the internet can be full of people who might try to take those photos and use them inappropriately or take advantage of my family.”

Although older digital natives have found various ways to stay connected using media while protecting their families and children, many are still searching for ways to stay safe as online tools change.

Other ways to stay safe

New apps have become common ways to stay connected for families who don’t want to use public social media. Apps such as Marco Polo and Google Photos allow photos to be shared with private and specific audiences. These are popular alternatives for people who don’t feel safe on public social media accounts. 

These applications have seen a rise in usage as the pandemic has kept many families separate for the last year. At the beginning of the pandemic, Marco Polo saw a 1,147% increase in new signups. Marco Polo allows users to connect in a walkie-talkie style of communication. One person sends a video message and the message is saved and can be replied to whenever the respondent wants to reply. The message can only be viewed by those it is sent to.   

A mother takes a video of her child playing with toys. Apps such as Marco Polo and Google Photos allow photos to be shared with private and specific audiences. (Digital illustration by Decker Westenburg)

Similar to Marco Polo, Apple iCloud photo sharing allows users to create shared albums with families and allows anyone to comment on the photos and videos at their convenience. 

Even with these new technologies, many people still prefer traditional forms of communication like phone calls to stay connected with loved ones.

BYU student Lauren Hutchings has young siblings in four different states. “I would just say my advice is to make an effort to communicate with others in any way,” Hutchings said. “Phone calls are how I stay connected with my brothers. They are horrible at texting, but they actually love it when I take the time to call them. I think they appreciate it especially because I’m so far away.”

Riley said she uses a variety of ways to stay in touch with family and friends who live farther away. After relocating to a new state during the pandemic, she has found creative ways to stay connected without posting on social media. For example, Riley has designed photo books and printed batches of pictures that she sends in the mail. 

“We have a few group texts, one with my immediate family and one with my husband’s, and then a couple smaller group texts with just our parents, and I send a few pictures to the bigger group, then more to just our parents,” Riley said. “The kids FaceTime their grandparents pretty regularly, and their cousins every once in a while, about once a month or so.”

Riley said there are still ways to connect safely without having to post pictures on social media. “It’s pretty easy when you snap a picture to just text it to family. When we have a family adventure day where I take a lot of pictures, I select the best ones and send those to parents at the end of the day,” Riley said.

Riley still uses social media to update distant family members, but she does not share pictures of her children’s faces. She will sometimes post photos of the backs of them or just their feet in a photo on public social media. 

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