How to Parent in the Age of Instagram

After researchers John Palfrey and Urs Gasser wrote the research-heavy Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Nativesback in 2008, parents started peppering them with requests for advice. In response, they’ve written The Connected Parent: An Expert Guide to Parenting in a Digital World (Hachette, 2020). The book distills what they’ve learned from 15 years of research they’ve done at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, as well as other research studies and their own experience as parents and teachers.

Scouting interviewed Palfrey, who is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, to find out what parents need to know. This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

What is “connected parenting”?

Palfrey: It’s a way to think about what is good about new technology and also where the risks are. Likewise, it’s a way to link up the way parents think about technology with the way they think about the rest of parenting. A lot of it is about having an ongoing conversation with your kids, which is an obvious thing but is important particularly with technology, where they think they know more than you do.

Do parents need to become, say, Instagram experts?

Palfrey: Our advice to parents is to get your hands dirty, but don’t feel you have to master every aspect of the technology. An example might be gaming. We know that virtually all young people like to get involved in online gaming of some sort. They actually are often open to showing their parents how it works. I don’t think you need to be on every game and playing at all hours, but certainly engaging in that with your young people can open interesting doors for conversation. It’s mostly about staying credible and being able to give good advice.

Does the research scare you or give you hope?

Palfrey: Overall, I’m reassured that this generation is going to be OK and that we can guide them to responsible and good technology use — and that there are ways that that can in fact be positive for them on a social and emotional front and on a cognitive front. I think there are a lot of upsides, and that’s what we’re encouraging parents to try to see.

So, when can technology become detrimental?

Palfrey: Take, for instance, a young person who has concerns about her body image. If she is constantly on a social-media site that is showing only the most beautiful versions of the thinnest people, that certainly can exacerbate her eating disorder. Those are the cases where parents need to find professional help for their kids. Just taking away their cellphone leaves the underlying issue there. It’s not as simple as a technological fix.

Any other advice to parents?

Palfrey: I think parents underestimate the power of modeling, and I think they also underestimate some of the challenges if they don’t model great behavior themselves. It’s very hard to be credible with your kids if you don’t do what you’re telling them to do.

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