Parenting is never easy. But today's parents have to grapple with technology in a way that no other generation has ever had to before.
A new study from the Family Online Safety Institute has found that most parents think that technology has a generally positive effect on their child's future, career and life skills; 78 percent of those surveyed said so. But many are still grappling with figuring out how — or even if — they should limit their children's tech use. Many, for example, said they worry that as their kids use more technology, they're not as physically active.
Other parent technology advocacy groups have found that teens are spending an average of nine hours with entertainment media. The safety institute's study sketches out more details about how parents with kids between the ages of 6 and 17 are dealing with all of that consumption. While 87 percent of parents say they have rules for their children's technology use, the kinds of rules they set vary widely. For example, 19 percent of parents limit their kids to five hours of tech use or less per week. A little more than one-third, 35 percent, set no limits at all.
Meanwhile, only 36 percent use parental controls to limit their kids' tech use — with many saying they don't see the need to because they trust their children's judgment and other household rules to keep things in hand. Three in four parents said they have taken away or limited access to the Web as a punishment for bad grades, breaking rules or other bad behaviors.
But there was also a slight dip in the number of parents who said they feel they have a handle on what their kids are up to online. And 55 percent said that they let a child under the age of 12 open a social networking account — something that is only allowed for kids 13 and up.
"That's a rather challenging figure," said the safety institute's executive director, Stephen Balkam, whose organization designed the "Good Digital Parenting" initiative to educate parents about how to deal with this brave new world. Organizations such as his, he said, as well as technology firms and the government must do more to educate parents about exploiting the benefits — and avoiding the dangers — of the online world.
"Everyone has different but overlapping responsibilities," he said, adding that his group has worked to arrange for speakers and distribute literature in many situations, from parent teacher association meetings to pediatrician's offices.
The challenge of educating parents is exacerbated by the fact that the technology is changing so quickly. Just think about it: Facebook is just shy of 11 years old. The iPhone is eight. (Were either of those products human, they wouldn't technically be allowed to have their own social networking profiles.) And the iPad, which kicked off a tablet revolution, is just five years old — yet 70 percent of households with children younger than 12 say their kids are using tablets.
Parents are struggling with how they manage their own technology use, let alone their children's behavior. When it came to how well they modeled good technological behavior, parents gave themselves the average grade of a "B" — as in, there's room for improvement.
Several parents told researchers that they know they could be putting their own phones down more frequently, whether it's taking a break from social media or curbing tech use behind the wheel while driving. "I know people are watching, like my son," one parent of a teenager said of putting the phone down at red lights.
"You could argue that this study was not just about kids' technology use, but also parents'," Balsam said. Younger parents, as you might expect, say that they feel they have a better handle on their children's tech use than older ones. Jennifer Hanley, the safety institute's director of legal and policy, said that, anecdotally, she's heard that grandparents raising their grandchildren feel the least aware of what's happening; millennial parents are the most confident.
But even tech-savvy parents have their "oops" moments. One telling stat? Ten percent of parents with social media accounts said that their children have asked them to take something down from Facebook.
Balkam said that despite the pitfalls that parents may face, he's an "eternal optimist" about parents being able to handle whatever new technology is thrown at them. For example, he noted that 55 percent of parents say they often use technology with their children. Nearly as many have learned something about their smartphone or tablet from their kids.
Hanley said more parents are working to make tech use a positive experience in their homes. "That's important for us: Those parents are allowing online exploration, but it's safe and fun."