Less parental control, more support of kids’ self-regulation: Study

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Nov 2, 2014

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By Anne Collier

It isn’t the first time research has found that “parental control” is not the best way to keep children safe online and on phones. “Rather than restricting or monitoring internet use, parents should let their children discover the net, both good and bad, themselves,” the BBC cites a new survey as saying.

It’s encouraging to see news stories like this; they’ve been rare over the past decade+, so it feels like we may be reaching a tipping point where the public discourse about youth online safety is becoming balanced and research–based.

This survey, of more than 2,000 14-to-17-year-olds in the UK and published by the Oxford Internet Institute and The Parent Zone, reminds me of several earlier ones, especially…

  • A 2010 report by Britain’s education watchdog Ofsted that looked at 37 schools, finding that highly controlled school environments did less to keep students safe in the long run than giving them opportunities to take responsibility for their own online safety
  • EU Kids Online’s finding that risk-taking and resilience development go hand-in-hand (as do risk and opportunity) online – see this on the latter in their 2011 report and this on their groundbreaking January 2013 report on resilience.
  • The US’s 2008 national task force at Harvard’s Berkman Center finding that a child’s psychosocial makeup and (home and school) environments are better predictors of online risk or safety than any technology the child uses.

Survey’s conclusions

In this latest study, the Oxford Internet Institute researchers, led by behavioral scientist Andrew Przbylski, came to three main conclusions:

  1. That “children who have positive offline relationships with their parents are more likely to navigate the web in a sensible way,” pointing to the importance of context and psychosocial factors (echoing the Berkman Task Force’s finding)
  2. That “supportive and enabling parenting has a more positive impact than restricting or monitoring internet use,” paralleling what Ofsted found about school environments
  3. That “teenagers left to self-regulate their internet and social media use are more likely to teach themselves new skills online and maintain positive online relationships,” which goes with the wisdom that resilience doesn’t develop well in controlled, risk-averse environments, and “Internet safety” needs to foster agency in youth – the capacity to protect and effect change for the better themselves – rather than, as it has done, to represent youth as passive consumers and potential victims or perpetrators.

Amazing: a research basis for parents to give teens space to self-regulate. If that seems like parenting advice from outer space, it kind of is to our extremely risk-averse society, where it’s downright scary to let go of “parental control” long enough to see if our kids actually will self-regulate (see this about a brave experiment one mom conducted with her toddler using a tablet). But self-regulation an essential part of the safety equation. The research is showing (and it’s even common sense) that, in a “user-driven,” networked age, regulation is increasingly distributed and shared among “users” (all of us), providers and traditional regulators (governments). So we need to get on with supporting our children’s development of it.

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