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Is This a Dark Age for Parenting?

‘What we as parents must do is to wake up our children’s critical powers, to help them feel more in control of the information that surrounds them.’ Photograph: Brad Wynnyk/Alamy

A panel of writers consider if, in an era of pornography addiction, e-cigarettes and video game violence, the job of a parent is genuinely tougher than ever

Every day there seems to be a new story highlighting the dangers facing children and teenagers. Yesterday, for instance, it was reported that 10% of 12- to 13-year-olds are worried that they might be addicted to pornography – and also that one in five 14- to 17-year-olds have tried or bought  e-cigarettes. There was a report last week that teenage boys spend an average of eight hours in front of a screen each day, a figure which just adds to the swirling anxieties around cyberbullying and video game violence. So, in the midst of all this, are we living in a particularly dark age for parenting, or one of the sunnier eras on record?

Homa Khaleeli: we should keep our angst under control

Homa Khaleeli

Last month I toyed with the idea of buying my 20-month-old daughter a helmet. Not for sport, but because I could not stop fretting that my marauding toddler was going to end up with a brain injury if she insisted on running into doors and falling off things. The month before, I crammed a car seat the size of an armoured tank into our tiny vehicle to protect her on the road. Today, I am trying to ignore a niggling anxiety that her cough is a symptom of something more serious than a cold. Dark days for parenting? Which days aren’t?

Yet, surprisingly, anxieties that have been in the news recently, around e-cigarettes and screen time, leave me unmoved. Of course, this might be because I haven’t quite got my head around the idea that my comical ball of energy is going to become a little girl, let alone a teenager. But it’s also because it feels like scares about the modern world are so misplaced – and detrimental.

Children Need a Free World to Experiment & Explore

We fear letting our children play outside unchaperoned, then complain they spend too much time looking at screens or are obese. We worry about stranger danger rather than addressing the fact that many children are at risk in their own homes, often from their own families. (And yes, we buy huge car seats instead of trying to make our roads and streets safer.) There is no evidence that our children are any less safe today than they were in the past – but we are certainly worrying about them more. And our deep-seated alarm only seems to spur us into creating bubbles for our children to live in; an attempt to shut out the world, rather than change it.

It’s true that it’s hard not to feel depressed, and yes, scared, when you read about how porn has infiltrated the lives of children. But rather than parents increasing their vigilance, wouldn’t it be better to address the underlying problem – by showing our children that girls and women do not exist for the pleasure of boys and men?

This does not mean that getting the balance right is easy. Last week at a party, a colleague described having a child as allowing your heart to leave your body and go out into the world to be stamped on (yes, I know – this is terrible party chat). And if fear is an evolutionary tool that ensures our survival then panicked parents are probably the ones to thank for our flourishing species. But that doesn’t mean we have to be swayed by every scare story. For the moment, I’m going to keep my angst under control, and my daughter helmet-free.

Charlotte Philby: the real threat is the pressure that parents feel

Charlotte Philby

As a relatively clued-up, interested mum of two young kids, I spend about 60% of my day worrying about my children. Given the constant threats of online bullying, porn, violent video games and the rest, it’s little wonder I spend the remaining 40% of my time Googling far-flung places to emigrate to the day they hit 10. The prospect of letting my babies loose in a digital age – into an online space that is totally foreign to me and one over which I feel I have no control – is daunting. Devastating, even. Speaking to my teenage cousins, and having worked as a news reporter, I have witnessed a spectrum of horrors that have chilled me.

Parenting is to Teach Kids How to Make Right Choices

But then, in moments of horrifying lucidity, I remember my own pre-internet teen years and I realise all too keenly that regardless of where you are, adolescence is, for the majority, about experimenting and taking risks. What matters most is that you have the sense of security and sense of self to (at least occasionally) make the right choices. That is largely learnt from your parents – a result of a “stable” upbringing. Which, of course, puts more pressure on parents to help their kids create firm foundations – and admittedly you can’t always prevent your kids making mistakes. But wasn’t it ever thus? The truth is, you can never entirely pre-empt the challenges your children will face. All you can do is have the conversations that will hopefully enable your children to navigate through the most confusing and exciting years of their lives – online, and in the real world; preparing them to make the right choices when you’re not there. And ultimately, to come to you when they need counsel.

That isn’t to say that we don’t live in a dark age for parenting. But the real threat to parents – particularly women – is surely the pressure we put on ourselves to do and have it all; to be the perfect mother, employee, partner and friend, while virtually updating the world on our respective successes. I say this as a woman who spends a third of her time checking emails, struggling to meet deadlines; another third scooting the kids between classes, arranging playdates et al; and the final third sobbing at the overwhelming impossibility of it all. If I’m honest, I think the prospect of me constantly striving to achieve more at the expense of my own mental health is a bigger long-term threat to my child’s confidence than the allure of Call of Duty.

Steve Chamberlain: the porn, fags and screens were always there

Challenges are Always There

The white noise of fear, shame and competition dominates the debate on bringing up kids today. Parenting is something other people do badly in public so that we can tut at them and scurry off to write newspaper articles and blogs backed up by hysterical surveys which say kids can’t run/add up/read/climb trees/sleep/eat like they used to – all of which is very boring.

Are kids addicted to web porn? Are they experimenting with e-cigs? Are they spending too much time looking at screens? And how the hell do you get them to eat broccoli?

I don’t know: all I can talk about is bringing up my own two. And I’m having a great time – thanks for asking – mostly bumbling along and shouting too much, but I don’t feel the darkness looming. As far as I can see, the porn, fags and screens were always there and always will be. I think what wasn’t there and what has changed is the fetishisation and commodification of being mum and dad.

At the bottom of it all is that we – as parents – are actually allowed to be out and proud about having kids like never before. Our mums and dads, and their mums and dads, were locked into ways of living that demanded children were written out of the equation. Work and home were strictly separate. Leave the woman to bring up the kids and the dad to work. Now all that is mixed up, family life bleeds into work life and both have to wrap around the other, for better or worse.

The result is that parenting becomes another project to be managed, another skill for us to be appraised on – pushed into the competitive arena by an industry that feeds off our anxieties by creating them in the first place – when, really, we should be too busy trying to bring up our kids to worry about the way we’re parenting them as well.

The broccoli’s a bugger though.

Linda Blair: we do face unprecedented dangers – but don’t despair

Linda Blair

Are children and teenagers today facing unprecedented dangers and temptations? And have their parents lost the ability to protect them from these dangers? It appears that the answer to both of these questions is yes.

Several recent surveys suggest that our children are exposed to threats we couldn’t even imagine 20 or 30 years ago. In particular, internet porn is now easy to access, as well as graphic violence in video games and films. With the young spending more and more time on their electronic devices – one survey reports that the average screen time for children between five and 16 years of age is now 6.5 hours a day – their exposure to disturbing imagery is likely only to increase.

Another danger that I am seeing far too often in my work as a clinical psychologist is the increasing practice of multi-screening – that is, attempting to attend to more than one device at any one time. The effect, at least in my clinical experience, is to make the viewer more distractible, less able to concentrate, focus on and later remember what was happening at the time, and less able to make decisions. This, in turn, has a negative impact on schoolwork and self-confidence.

Don’t be Disappointed

Despite this negative picture, I am optimistic. As parents, we need not feel helpless or out of control. To make a difference in today’s world, however, we need to step back from content, from what we perceive to be threatening to our offspring, and look at how the threats gain power and influence.

The more often our children are exposed to content – whatever its nature – the more important it will seem to them, and the more often they do so passively the more likely they are to accept that content without challenge. What we as parents must do, therefore, is to wake up their critical powers, and to help our children feel more in control of the information that surrounds them.

The first step we need to take is to limit their screen time, and to discourage totally the practice of multi-screening. Furthermore, as role models for our children, we need also to limit our own screen time.

Screen use is, and will no doubt remain, an important part of our lives now. But it need not, and should not, be the predominant way we learn and communicate.

Communication with Children

The second step is to open (or re-open) the lines of communication with our children. Learn about the things that interest your kids. Encourage them to explain modern technology you don’t understand, and to share their views and opinions about what’s going on in the world. Try to listen, truly listen, without harsh criticism and with the aim of understanding their dilemmas. And if, no matter how hard you try, your children still feel that they can’t talk with you, help them find others with whom they can work through their worries.

Our aim in the long term should be to empower our children, not simply to try to protect them.

Reference: Parenting TeamDigital Natives Around the WebParenting Digital Nativeschildren,cyberbullying,kids,Pak Parenting,parenting,youngstersIs This a Dark Age for Parenting? 'What we as parents must do is to wake up our children's critical powers, to help them feel more in control of the information that surrounds them.' Photograph: Brad Wynnyk/Alamy A panel of writers consider if, in an era of pornography addiction, e-cigarettes and...Be  Smart Parents