How to make digital parenting work – An interview of Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov

  • Awareness
  • 22/04/2020
  • Portuguese Safer Internet Centre

The Portuguese Safer Internet Centre (SIC) recently carried out an interview of Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov, lawyer, law professor and online safety consultant. The conversation is published below.

Digital parenting is about family relationships and how the family interacts with its different members regarding the use of digital technologies. As a mother, what can you tell us about your experience with using digital technologies, and how it has impacted family relationships?

Digital parenting is hard. It is a challenge because of course, we all want what is best for our children. We want our children to experience the best that technology has to offer.  We want our children to take advantage of the fantastic opportunities that exist in using social media, networking, and gaming.  We also want our children to discover, play and learn online, however there is also a very small amount of risk and so, as parents we need to monitor that risk.

That leads me to the next question, what to do when your children encounter such risks?

It is very important for parents not to panic, but to use their parenting skills. The fact is that parents, in general, know what is best for their child, so parents can use those same skills and intuition in the online world. Parents can see when their child is gaming too much, they can see if their children are acting aggressive or they can notice their tantrums if they are younger children using their tablet, for example.  In that case, parents go in, look at what is happening, create a distraction and then help their children handle those emotions.  Technology is exciting and it is difficult to self-regulate.

You gave us some tips for the parents to handle these issues so that digital technologies do not become a negative thing – because they shouldn't!

Yes, digital technologies should not become a negative thing and parents should not be afraid, because they need to realise that digital technologies may be scary sometimes – even for me. I do not have all the answers, but what I always try to do, is speak with my children. I am always having conversations with them to find out how they are doing, what they like to do online. If anything happens, I can intervene as soon as possible – earlier rather than later, and before things escalate.

Besides the family context, at school and in a professional environment, how do you perceive the use of digital technologies? Is it a risk or an opportunity?

I think it is both. Of course, it can be a fantastic opportunity if used wisely. It is like everything else, like a car or a knife. These are fantastic tools if you use them wisely but if you don't, they can be disastrous. In France, the general rule is that children do not have smartphones in schools. And it sounds more draconian and horrible than it really is. It's not like that. Of course, teachers can use the phones for a class exercise and of course students have special exceptions to use their phones, and they should. So, it is both good and bad.

But even with restrictions, sometimes bad things can happen, because teenagers are so digitally-savvy that we as adults can no longer stay up to date. How can we keep up with them, and prevent the bad?

Can I scare you a little bit? Because when you say that bad things can happen, my initial thought is to say "let them – provided, of course, the bad things are not truly bad – let there be small risks for our children so we can help them build resilience". We can be right next to them when something happens, and we can tell them: "Did you see that? Oh, that's horrible! But let's fix it." This is how you should react, and this is how we should think so we can handle together some of those situations and teach them.

Is prohibition the way?

Prohibitions and restrictions can have their place, under certain circumstances. However, the fact is that we are living in a digital age, so we must teach our children how to use digital technologies safely and responsibly.

What about situations where there is a victim, like cyberbullying? How should we handle those situations when the harm is already done?

When the harm is already done, I think the first thing a parent should do, or even a teacher, is to reassure the child and to make sure that the child gets whatever psychological support they need so they can be safe. And to make sure the child understands that it was not their fault. Always take care of the child first, and then think about strategies to prevent future situations. Prevention and awareness are fantastic, but it does not always do the job properly, so sometimes we really have to come in and solve it. It is important to stay calm and understand that the child is the focus – and not the parents, and their feelings about digital technologies or "too much gaming" or even "smartphone addiction".

That brings us to the next question about issues related to mental health and addiction. What can be done to protect children and young people's mental health online?

Then again, I think it all starts when children are young, when we teach them social and emotional skills, so that when these things happen (and inevitably they will), we will be able to intervene as soon as possible to put things back on track and to really support the child. Nowadays, schools are more and more equipped to deal with these kinds of situations. I have faith in schools and in parents, but I believe we must all work together.

Find out more information about the work of the Portuguese Safer Internet Centre (SIC) generally, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services, or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.

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