Do you know that Safer Internet Day fell on 9 February this year?
Yep, that’s the second day of the Lunar New Year. Which was pretty cool because it resulted in a lot more positive posts online – photos of families and friends resplendent in their new clothes, mouth-watering food pics, and lots of good cheer.
In case you are still wondering, Safer Internet Day is an annual global initiative which seeks to promote the safe, responsible and positive use of digital technology. This year, the global theme for the movement is “Play Your Part for a Better Internet”. There are lots of things which you can do, including participating in the Emoji Face Challenge if you wish.
(You can read more about Safer Internet Day in my previous post “Does Singapore Need Safer Internet Day” here)
Challenged on what I could do for Safer Internet Day, I decided that it may be useful to share my experience as a “digital” parent – one who depends on social media to make a living – who is also an “undigital” parent.
So how do my wife and I impart positive Internet behaviours to our 12-year old (secondary one) son? What does it mean for us to be “undigital” as parents?
Embrace inverted pyramid parenting
First, my wife and I are firm believers in the principle of reverse or inverted pyramid parenting. We believe that you should start off by being extremely strict in how you teach and discipline your child when he or she is very young, and gradually loosen the reins as he or she grows up.
In the context of digital parenting (or undigital parenting rather), this could be viewed as follows:
Note that it is extremely difficult to limit digital device use on your teens once you have relinquished the reins from a young age. I have spoken to so many friends who found it impossible to control their teenagers. Perpetually glued to their mobiles, they live in a world of their own and lack social and public speaking skills.
Be a friend and share common online interests
Where possible, I try to be a good friend to my son. While we may not have the exact geeky hobbies, I make an effort to learn what he likes.
We are both huge fans of fantasy movies and space drama operas, as well as anime otakus. Thus, we do watch movies on the computer now and then, and we always do it together. I also try where possible to talk about topics that he is interested in, and encourage him to share what he experiences in school or with his friends.
Hand-me-down phones are fine
While we do enjoy the wonders of technology, we adopt a pragmatic approach when it comes to buying new smartphones, tablets or laptops.
My son currently uses my old iPhone 4, and shares a limited data plan with my wife. By doing so, we can limit the amount of time he spent online chatting with his friends, viewing videos on YouTube, or playing games (most can only operate on new operating systems).
Hold yourself accountable to the same standards
As somebody who depends on the Internet for a living, I spend an excessive amount of time peering into my mobile or engaging with friends and associates on social media. I also find it difficult to peel my eyes away from my devices.
Should my son spot me scrolling ad infinitum on my mobile, he would chide me for not practicing what I preach! Should that happen, I’d admit my guilt, tuck my mobile away, and seek to be fully present when I engage with him.
Remember parents that when our kids will follow our actions and not our words.
Encourage real life habits like reading and walking
One of the activities which I advocate aggressively is reading. You will always find a book in my man-bag, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.
To encourage my son – and wife – to pick up the reading habits, I often borrow books from the library for them. We also make it a habit to read each night before we sleep, and to buy gifts of books to my son where possible. This helps to reduce his reliance on digital devices for entertainment or enrichment.
Beyond reading, we also visit various parks and gardens, or go for walks around our estate together as a family. Doing so helps us to bond more closely while talking to one another in the flesh.
Delay social media adoption
Do you know that your kid is not supposed to have an account on most of the social media sites until they are well in their teens?
Don’t believe me, just look at the chart below from Action for Children:
My son has a WhatsApp account so that we can message him or he can message us. Beyond that, he doesn’t have any other social media account nor express the wish to be on these channels.
Now there is definitely nothing wrong with social media. In fact, it is the most amazing invention since sliced bread – especially for a social media and content marketing consultant like me. However, I would prefer to have more of my son in the flesh (sorry I am selfish that way) than lose him to the social networks.
Associate digital devices and Internet with work (not play)
My wife and I do not use our smartphones to play games (I have gone cold turkey on Candy Crush Soda) or to entertain ourselves. Rather, we use it primarily to connect with friends and family members, or to engage with clients and partners at work.
With that as the basis, I try to reinforce the same message to our son. This is why he only uses the laptop when he needs to do school work, and not to view YouTube videos or play games.
Have I succeeded as a digital un-parent?
Admittedly, we haven’t always succeeded in our quest to live our lives more fully in the real world. Digital devices will inevitably encroach into our daily lives. Besides, I can’t be restraining my son from exploring and developing his own identity as a digital citizen.
However, you can be sure that we will continue to pursue ways and means to be more fully present in each other’s lives, and to hopefully impart the right values to our son.