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Supporting your child’s digital practices – some pointers for parents

A version of this article was originally published on the OU News Website on the 25th July 2018

It is clear from talking with parents that they are often torn between a recognition of digital technology’s importance in their children’s lives and concerns about excessive screen time, Internet safety, online bullying and a myriad of other potential ‘dangers’. Often, parents look to their children’s school for advice. However, my research has found that the ways in which children use digital technology outside school are very different from the ways in which they are expected to use it inside school. Mal Lee describes this as the laissez fair approach to learning adopted by ‘digitally connected families’, which he claims is both universal across countries and very successful. Sanjay Sarma from MIT argues that parents instincts about how to support their children’s learning is closer to what neuroscience tells us about how children learn than anything ‘we subject students to’ in formal education, ‘so trust your instincts’.

However, my research found that the sophistication of children’s use of digital technology varied considerably between families, depending upon the support (or constraints) provided by parents, siblings and other family members. The instances where children appeared to develop the most advanced digital technology practices all shared the following characteristics:

  • The child had access to digital devices that were connected to the Internet
  • The child was pursuing an interest that they had – they were doing something that was personally important and intrinsically motivating for them
  • Parents actively supported the child in pursuing that interest, without taking over – at times this meant stepping back and giving the child the opportunity to explore and make mistakes
  • The child was allowed to communicate with ‘trusted others’ over the Internet who shared the child’s interest.

Families where children appeared not to be developing such sophisticated digital practices lacked some of those characteristics, and in particular were often severely restricted in their access to the Internet.

Based on my research here are my top suggestions about how to support your child’s learning with digital technology outside school:

  • Start young – help her develop understanding and competence in using digital technology (including the Internet) appropriately whilst you are still the most important influencer in her life.
  • Model appropriate us of digital technology – if you use your phone during meal times or interrupt a conversation with your child to answer your phone then don’t be surprised if your child uses their technology in antisocial ways too!
  • Agree family rules about digital technology use – if your child feels ownership of the rules and that they are fair (e.g. they apply to you as well as your child) then enforcing them will be much less difficult.
  • Provide your child with access to digital technology, ideally that they feel ownership of – but think about where the technology is situated (e.g. if you put a computer in their bedroom or ban the use of tablets in the sitting room then don’t be surprised if they spend more time in their bedroom than in the sitting room).
  • Talk openly with your child about using digital technology – be interested and supportive rather than controlling – they need to feel trusted and that they can trust you enough to tell you if things go wrong.
  • Help your child link up with trusted others who have shared interests (e.g. other Minecrafters) – initially this group will only consist of people you know and trust (in the physical world) such as family members.
  • Recognise and value the learning that will inevitably happen as your child engages with digital technology – look past the surface features of what they are doing with digital technology – what at first looks like ‘just playing games’ may be helping them develop their ability to solve problems, to collaborate, to communicate, to be creative, and to persevere when things don’t go well – those are all incredibly useful things to learn!

For more information on my research see

For additional advice on supporting your child’s digital technology use at home see - ThinkUKnow - the UK National Crime Agency website providing advice about child exploitation and online protection.


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