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How to be a good virtual parent

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 04, 2020 11:07 am

(Clockwise from top): Advocate and moderator Jane Uymatiao, Cyber Safespaces Project manager Sheila Estabillo, Globe Telecom director Rina Siongco, Netflix Strategy and Development director Shanta Arul

In today’s digital reality, it’s very easy for parents to think things have spiraled beyond their control. How to keep kids safe online, or monitor what they see, hear or respond to through their devices, becomes even more challenging with COVID-19, constant lockdown with family and away from friends, and the added difficulty of online schooling.

It’s easy to throw up your hands and figure you can never bridge the generation gap in the digital age.

Take for example a parent who thinks she’s outsmarted her kid by unplugging the WiFi modem to limit her young son’s daily online use. “How long did that solution last?” the mother asks her kid. “One day,” the kid answers. “Then I learned how to plug it back in.”

On the other hand, take a parent who thinks nothing of sharing baby photos of her little sweetheart naked in the bathtub online. By the time the kid is 11 or 12, she’s demanding to know, “Mom, what were you thinking, putting that bathtub picture of me online?”

In this day and age, it’s hard to know when you’re “crossing the line” between parenting and over-parenting, between sharing and oversharing. And it’s hard to know what online behaviors are safe.

Hosted by digital literacy advocates the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), the Philippines’ Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA) and global internet entertainment service Netflix, the online forum “Good Digital Parenting in an Open Internet” tackled ways to help parents re-engage with their kids in the digital world, and learn how to navigate the new boundaries.

Foundation for Media Alternatives executive director Liza S. Garcia 

In opening remarks, FMA executive director Liza S. Garcia said, “Being a parent is not easy in the digital age, and there are many challenges that parents have to hurdle, such as keeping up with technology and being familiar with the applications that their children use. We want our kids to be safe and secure. But how do we make the world safe for our children? How do we respond to the challenges and opportunities that digital technology provides?”

Family Online Safety Institute founder Stephen Balkam

FOSI founder Stephen Balkam brought up the “3 Ps”: Policy, Practicing and Parenting. A lot of it is working with online content providers, local governments and law enforcement to set responsible rules. “Behind the scenes, we try to put pressure on the providers,” Balkam said. “We acknowledge the risks, but also want families to reap the rewards of what’s online.”

In practice, the pressure includes ensuring that content providers such as Netflix (represented by Strategy and Development director Shanta Arul) and Globe Telecom (represented by director Rina Siongco) have safety measures in play, like parental settings and ways to report inappropriate content to authorities.

“We at Netflix are always continuing to strengthen our parental controls based on member feedback,” says Arul. “We understand choice and control are important for our members, especially parents, and hope these additional controls will help parents make informed choices on what their families watch.” Those controls exist in the subscriber’s settings, where they can set a “Profile Maturity Rating” and even block certain shows and previews for their kids.

Siongco says Globe’s goal is to make the internet more accessible, working with the government to provide free access to digital books, and working with schools to enable them with digital tools and learning platforms. But, “at home, I believe a parent’s involvement is crucial to this new normal that we are in,” she says. “Parents, who may now have to employ a work-and-parenting balance, have to become more vigilant on the content that they view online, and assist teachers in ensuring that education remains effective, especially now that it has shifted to utilizing online methods.”

Balkam also encourages parents to engage with their kids and acquire “Digital literacy.” “Usually kids are way ahead of parents,” he says. “We have to help parents understand the technologies and become more empowered.” Don’t just shrink from the challenge of all that technology; learn how to set up, configure, and download apps. (There are even some, like OurPact, that can help parents remotely shut off internet access.)

A lot of it requires not tuning out from your kids and their online viewing habits. It’s hard because “teens love to be private,” notes Balkam. “They don’t want their parents looking in.” On one end of the parenting spectrum, you have authoritarian parents who demand to look at their kids’ phones, or take them away without discussion. On the other end, he’s seen some liberal parents who just give their kid a phone and walk away, with zero monitoring. “When I ask them, they say, ‘Oh, I trust my child.’ Which means, ‘I’m not up to being a parent.’ What they’re saying is, ‘It’s too much like hard work.’”

Some parents also report feeling “zombiecal” from doing their jobs from home, while also supervising their kids all day long. It’s tempting to let your kids go “free-range” on the internet. But the risks are very real: cyberbullying, sexting, oversharing, nude photos. Stuff that leads to creepy online zones that parents fear the most.

I ask if there can ever be simple, agreed-upon rules for online conduct, and what the endpoint of all this virtual parenting might be. “The endpoint, I guess, would be a platform that was so good at moderating the content that you would never come across hateful, hurtful or defamatory content,” Balkam says, though he concedes that’s a bit utopian. Still, in the early ‘90s, at the beginning of the internet, he notes that platforms felt they had no responsibility at all to the online community. “Very quickly, they learned: if they want advertising, they’d better control the content. Now most platforms know it’s in their interest.”

Blogger and advocate Jane Uymatiao moderated the workshop, and Cyber Safespaces Project manager of Plan International Sheila Estabillo had this to say: “The COVID-19 Pandemic has drastically changed the parenting landscape with the internet playing a more crucial role in everyday life. Digital parenting is an essential developing skill for parents to learn and the best way to hone this skill is to spend more time actively engaging within the online environment.”

Some steps to good digital parenting

• Talk openly with kids about your online concerns.

• Google stuff to learn more about how to set parental controls.

• Set ground rules. Make sure there are consequences. One might be taking away the phone or device for a day or two.

• Be a good digital role model yourself: Learn how and when to put down your phones. Kids complain that their parents, too, are always on their devices. “I went to cuddle mom but she was on Facebook.”

• Make sure there are “tech-free zones” in the house.

  Do an “Online Safety Agreement.” Discuss the limits with your kids. Discuss consequences. Get kids to sign it; it makes them feel important and empowered.