Dossier: Digital life

New media: parents as role models

Children should gain experience in the real world and develop social skills before being exposed to digital media. To do so, they need the help of role models and influential figures. Parents play an important role – their own approach to digital media is crucial.

Children love to explore the world and their initial experiences of it are vital. This means sensations that children experience with their own body and in the real world: touch, hearing, sight, smell and taste. In other words, digging in the sandpit, playing with water, kneading dough and painting. Social experiences are important, too, such as playing with other children at home, in the woods or in a sports club. What’s more, today’s generation is inevitably exposed to digital media from a very early age, through their parents, other carers and older siblings. Digital media certainly polarise opinions and have led many parents to question how their behaviour affects the physical and psychological well-being of their children.

«Media literacy starts with media abstinence»

“Children need a loving, caring environment and the opportunity to develop skills such as communication, learning, empathy and frustration tolerance in order to develop into healthy adults”, says child psychiatrist Professor Christoph Möller*. These skills can’t be learnt by themselves in front of a screen – children need to experience the real world. Role models and influential figures can help here too, by paying them attention, embodying certain values and behaviour, interacting with them, creating lasting experiences and explaining how things are connected. That’s why Möller advocates total abstinence: “Digital media is best avoided entirely until children have learnt these skills – media literacy starts with media abstinence”.

“[...] – media literacy starts with media abstinence”
Prof. Dr. Christoph Möller

Be a role model for your children

Children pay close attention to how their parents use digital media. If mum is chatting online or dad is playing a game on his smartphone, they’ll want to try it at some point, too. Parents therefore pave the way for how their children will use digital media – what they use and how often they use it. Parents play an influential role here, too, as they convey their values through discussion and the setting of guidelines. In a letter to parents, Sucht Schweiz writes: “Your child needs to have the opportunity to discuss things with you. They value your opinion, even if it doesn’t always seem like it.” Children thrive on discussions with their parents, and this is crucial as it helps them to form opinions based on their own convictions, values and norms. And applying this approach to digital media means parents who talk to their child, for example about a computer game or community, can help them make their own decisions.

Parents react differently

A study conducted in 2015 into how parents teach their children to use mobile phones revealed that parents felt that it presented a number of challenges. Parents often feel helpless, overwhelmed and unable to control their children. They often argue with their children about how much they use their mobile phones. On the basis of this study, the researchers divided parents into four groups:

  1. Laissez-faire group: Parents in this group have surrendered to mobile multifunctional devices and avoid implementing any educational guidelines or rules.
  2. Fearful, conservative group: In contrast to the Laissez-faire group, this group restricts their children’s access to smartphones and ignores the disadvantages which subsequently arise.
  3. Friendly, liberal group: Parents in this group place great importance on having a trusting relationship with their children, understand the fascination with mobiles and don’t worry too much about the whole thing.
  4. Actively child-focused group: They’re concerned about their children’s phone usage, talk to them about it and try to set clear usage boundaries which correspond to the child’s stage of development.

“The fourth group is clearly the ideal which everyone should aim for”, says Möller. Many parents are grateful to get specific tips on media literacy. There are many guides and websites nowadays which publish such tips (see example in the box). But, above all, parents should trust their gut feeling when it comes to their children and apply common sense: this should help to overcome many educational hurdles.

Key tips from Sucht Schweiz

  • Talk to children and young adults about their experiences with digital media. Getting them to show you apps, computer games, online activities and their favourite websites can help you gain a better understanding of why they use them.
  • Establish age-appropriate rules for usage times (you’ll find tips on how to do so on the following websites):
  • Be a role model: Parents and teachers should review their own media habits and make changes if necessary.
  • No televisions, computers or games consoles in bedrooms – put them in a communal room. Smartphone use should also be restricted in the evening.
  • Don’t use screen time as a reward or punishment as this only enhances its importance.
  • Get out and about in the real world – both children and young adults alike enjoy ice-skating, swimming and hiking in the mountains and woods.

Prof. Dr. Christoph Möller

Chief consultant for the department for paediatric psychiatry and psychotherapy and psychosomatic medicine at the Auf der Bult centre in Hannover, Germany and has written several books on the subject of digital media (only available in German).