Digital Parenting: More Technology Means More Work

a mom looking over her daughter's shoulder at a cell phone
Parenting has gotten harder in the digital age, experts say (Image credit: CREATISTA |

Cellphones, tablets, video games and computers — the average youngster has logged thousands of hours on digital technologies by the time they leave home.

And all these technologies have changed the way parents do their jobs.

Though digital technology allows parents to entertain or keep tabs on their youngsters, for the most part, all of these apps and websites have created more decisions, more research (to figure out what's kid-friendly and what's not) and more rules to negotiate with their children, often on the fly, media researchers say.

In many ways, digital technologies have made parenting harder, experts say. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]

No parent replacement

Although it may seem like parents are increasingly using technology as a babysitter, that's not true for most parents, said Alexis Lauricella, a researcher at the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University in Illinois.

"We felt like we kept seeing iPads at every restaurant we went out to with every young child," Lauricella told LiveScience. "We wondered: Was that really the case? Are parents just forking over an iPad to keep kids quiet?"

So Lauricella and her colleagues asked about 2,300 parents about their strategies surrounding parenting and digital parenting.  

About 70 percent of parents said that smartphones and tablets didn't make parenting any easier, according to the June 2013 survey.

About 37 percent of parents said they're likely to turn to a smartphone or tablet to distract kids while cooking dinner, and 17 percent said they had relied on tablets or other mobile devices to placate an upset child. More often, parents used technology as carrot or stick: either as punishment for bad behavior or a reward for good behavior.

Kid tracking

The advent of technology has also allowed parents to track their children in various ways. Whether it's GPS phone tracking to keep up with their kids' whereabouts or Internet monitoring, more and more parents use digital technology to keep up with their youngsters, said Lynn Schofield Clark, a media studies researcher at the University of Denver and the author of "The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age," (Oxford University Press, 2012). 

For some parents, keeping up with schoolwork may be the most tempting mode of surveillance. No longer do parents have to rely on children to bring home their report cards.

"Now, it's possible for parents to log on and see all of what's happening with their kids' school assignments, and that's from kindergarten up through high school," Schofield Clark told LiveScience. "It makes it possible for parents to engage in helicopter parenting."

More decisions

The biggest difference, however, may be how many more decisions come with digital parenting.

Before the digital age, parents may have set kids loose on their bikes and given them a few rules: "Don't talk to strangers, and be back by dinnertime."

Nowadays, children burn hours playing mobile games or posting pictures on Facebook.

Making sure kids stay safe online now means navigating myriad apps, social websites and games — and possibly coming up with different rules for each of them. [Tech Tantrums: 6 Things Parents Need to Know]

"There really are a lot more options, which means parents have to dig into them a little bit more," Lauricella said. "Growing up, we had a PBS station — and that's basically what my parents considered good television, and that's what we were allowed to watch. It's not that easy anymore."

Dangers lurking

Sometimes, the consequences of not creating Web safety for children may be dire.

Twelve-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick committed suicide earlier this month after being bullied relentlessly online. Though the Florida girl changed schools and her mother deleted her Facebook account, the young preteen downloaded newer apps that her mother didn't know about, such as, Kik and voxer, and the bullying followed her there.

Most of the time, however, the risks associated with digital technologies are much more mundane — the worry that children won't learn moderation or good manners, or will fall behind on their homework because they're spending so much time on social media.

Making parenting even harder is that there aren't universally agreed-upon social rules governing technology use, Schofield Clark said.

For instance, is it rude or clever to hand a child an iPad in a restaurant to keep him or her quiet? Is it acceptable for children to talk on a cellphone as soon as they get home from school, or should they first greet their parents and describe their day? Are children obligated to pick up phone calls from their parents?

"There are some things now that parents and young people have to negotiate that they didn't before," Schofield Clark said.

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.