Last month at Temple University, Kelly Mendoza defended her impressive Ph.D. dissertation, “Protection and Empowerment: Exploring Parental Internet Mediation Strategies for Preteens.”
Her research explored parent attitudes and behaviors concerning various parenting strategies with preteen children. She used a mixed-method study: an online questionnaire directed at 225 parents of preteen children and 40 in-depth interviews with parents. Because the surveys and interviews included a non-representative sample of relatively affluent and well-educated mothers (with a few exceptions), this study reveals the opportunities and challenges that even well-resourced parents face in managing children’s Internet use during the critical time before puberty.
Her findings reveal that the most widely used strategy is having the child use the Internet in a public space in the home. Parents rely on establishing and enforcing rules for time and content; surprisingly, few parents co-surf online with their preteens, ask questions about the websites their kids visit, or encourage their kids to create things online. In the survey, parents reviewed a list of strategies for managing media use in the home. These included:
Online Protectionist Strategies
- Have rules about how long they can be online.
- Have rules about what websites they can visit.
- Use filtering software/tools that block access to certain websites.
- Use monitoring software/tools to track my child’s online activity.
- Have my child use the Internet where I can see him/her.
- Limit who they can talk to online (social networking, chat, instant messaging, etc.)
- Show my child how to keep information private (or have them show me).
- Have my child balance their online activities with other non-technology activities
Online Empowerment Strategies
- Help them understand the difference between advertisements and website content.
- Ask questions to help them understand the author and purpose of different websites.
- “Co-surf” online with my child.
- Suggest developmentally appropriate websites to my child.
- Communicate with my child using online technology (Instant messaging, chat, comment on
- their profile or blog, as a player in a game, etc.)
- Have them describe why they like their favorite websites.
- Encourage my child to create online content in positive, enriching ways (websites, videos,
- music, profile pages, pictures, etc.)
- Encourage my child to use websites for civic participation and activism.
- Encourage my child to use websites to extend learning about school-related topics.
Although a majority of parents use a combination of protectionist and empowerment strategies, most rely on protectionist Internet mediation overall. Even though parents report having confidence in empowerment strategies, they are less likely to use them. Parents rated protectionist strategies as simply more effective than empowerment strategies. What a surprise! After all, who could be blasé when it comes to empowerment? As Kelly’s literature review revealed, scholars have critiqued the use of protectionist strategies but see nothing but goodness in the concept of empowerment.
This gives us something to think about. The sample of parents in Kelly’s study can be best conceptualized as “the choir,” as in “preaching to the choir.” They are strong advocates for digital and media literacy. They understand that media and technology play an important role in the development of children and youth. A significant subset of them work in education or in media fields. These parents are vocal and active in shaping norms about appropriate media use among their children and their family members. They are influential thought leaders among their peer groups.
For these reasons, it’s noteworthy that these parents have, by and large, not drunk the Kool-Aid when it comes to the wonders of all things digital and participatory. These parents simply prefer to set rules and limits about the Internet instead of using it to promote online learning and creativity.
So I wonder: What are the downsides of empowerment, from the point of view of parents? Why might parents feel perfectly confident in implementing empowerment strategies but at the same time choose not to implement them?
One answer comes from the fact that, to implement empowerment strategies means using the Internet more frequently – because online creative play and content creation take lots of time. For some parents, this practice is at odds with the idea of establishing a healthy balance of online and offline activities. Parents who seek this balance recognize the substantial value of unmediated activities – knowing that outdoor play develops gross motor skills, arts and crafts develops fine motor skills, face-to-face social interaction helps children read nonverbal cues, manage conflict, and develop empathy, and unstructured, unmediated time helps children’s imaginations to flourish. Parents who use protectionist strategies may simply value unmediated activities more than mediated ones.
Another possible answer comes from the fact that parents recognize that the implementation of empowerment strategies entail more potential risk. After all, encouraging children to create online content, including profile pages, pictures and videos, means that children will be more active and visible online. They will be more likely to accidentally encounter spam, malware, and porn. It’s possible they will stumble onto inappropriate videos while searching for something quite innocent. And while many parents may encourage children to use a computer for creative art activities, they may be less interested in having children share this work online.
This research invites us to reflect on the advice we may offer parents. Truth be told: a mix of protectionist and empowerment strategies may be best. As a parent, I used a blend of these strategies in raising my own children. But empowerment strategies have downsides that need to be considered.
By helping parents critically evaluate both the strengths and limitations of both protectionist and empowerment strategies, parents can make wise and important choices that best reflect their own values about how to manage media and technology in the home.