Parenting in the brave new world

To keep my kids safe online, I may have little choice but to change my digital dinosaur ways and renounce my life as a social-media hermit

The assignment was met with groans and disbelieving cries of "har?!".

But the trainer was firm. For homework, the 10 of us attending the digital-age parenting course had to download and play a mobile game called Clash Royale. Then we would share our experiences at the next session.

The aim was to give us, mostly Gen-X mums, a taste of the user interface that appeals to our iGen kids. You know, those born after 1995 who don't know life before the Internet and seem to prefer cool smartphones to warm humans.

My 10-year-old son practically hyperventilated when I told him about my homework.

"Finally. My friends have been playing that for months."

Among their generation of digital natives, my son and seven-year-old daughter are probably misfits.

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Wary of what we perceive as the World Wild Web and worried about the risk of digital addiction, my husband and I have long imposed strict limits on their screen time.

We have no gaming consoles and our only iPad has not been revived or replaced since it blacked out a year ago.

Access to my laptop is granted only for online homework and project research. Occasionally, they might be allowed to surf for fun for a short while, such as watching a funny video on YouTube.

Mobile-game sessions on my phone are capped at 20 minutes each, three times a week - provided their homework is done and they have done nothing to raise my blood pressure for the day. But the games are rarely, if ever, those that are trending among their friends because I shun multiplayer games. These, I've read, provide fertile hunting ground for Internet predators who target young players for sexual grooming.

We don't ban our children from going out just because risks and reckless drivers abound on the roads. Instead, we teach them about safety and train them to exercise good judgment because there is much to learn and gain from exploring the world out there.

My son's fervent pleas for a mobile phone will likely go unheeded till he turns 12. Or 13. Maybe even later, if I can help it.

I would love to claim that our digital-parenting philosophy is modelled on a foolproof blueprint devised after careful thought. But the truth is, these cyber-austerity measures are rooted in fear and ignorance. Since I don't know what's out there or how exactly to manage their digital consumption, I'm playing it safe by implementing a virtual lockdown.

Yet I'm not so naive as to believe it is possible - or right - to raise digital celibates in the information technology age. This was why I signed up quickly for the workshop when my daughter's school sent an e-mail with the details.

For our generation that enjoyed a largely analogue childhood, but had to get up to speed with the latest tech trends when our own kids came along, there is no precedent for parenting in this brave new world. What boundaries do I set and how do I set them?

The course, conducted by Touch Cyber Wellness, the main agency here that holds talks and community education programmes on online safety, covered key areas such as ways to help our children cultivate healthy digital habits and navigate the social-media minefield.

Okay, "minefield" is my insertion. I am a reluctant digital immigrant and a social-media hermit. I have such grave misgivings (and likely misconceptions) about privacy and security issues on these platforms, my only social-media presence is a dormant Facebook account on which I've posted a grand total of 20 comments and photos in the last 10 years.

But over the three two-hour sessions, I learnt that I have to overcome my disinterest, distrust and even disdain of newfangled games and apps if I want to keep up with my children and keep them safe.

I can no longer stick my head in the sand and hope for the best. There is no room for passive parenting in the digital age, we were told. It is our job to be watchful, engaged and informed. We can't protect our children well if we have no idea what to protect them from.

We don't necessarily have to set up accounts for Snapchat, Instagram and the likes, for instance. But we should at least find out how these platforms work, why our kids enjoy using them and where the potential dangers lie. Only then can we set effective parameters and engage our kids in meaningful conversations about them.

Getting us to download Clash Royale, for example, was a crash course on the features that make modern mobile games addictive - and a window to the gaming motivations among the young.

The learning curve is steep, though.

I dutifully downloaded Clash Royale on my phone, attempted one of five required tutorials with my son's help and then gave up. I couldn't keep up with his rapid-fire instructions to deploy archers, giants, fireballs and whatnot to defend and demolish towers. The game was, to me, pointless, complicated and so not fun.

I was, however, impressed by how he knew what to do even though his only experience with the game had been as an envious onlooker. We had fun interacting over the game, but, alas, my hopes of being deemed just a wee bit cooler were dashed the very next day.

"I told my friends I finally played Clash Royale and they went, 'Bo-rrring,'" he reported dispiritedly.

They had long moved on to other games such as what sounded to me like Roadblocks.

"Roadblocks? Is that some traffic game?" I asked.

"Not roadblocks," he replied, rolling his eyes. "Roblox."

Just like that, I was back to square one.

I'd like to think I'm not a complete lost cause though. At least I'm trying to get the basics right while my kids are still young and malleable. Start laying out the boundaries early, but delay giving them access to personal phones and social-media accounts till they are mature enough to handle the responsibilities, we were advised.

Spelling out the consequences for breaching those parameters is important too. But what is most crucial is the ability to crack the whip when rules are broken.

"Boundaries without consequences are like screen doors on a submarine. They are useless," said the trainer, who got us to work out for ourselves the appropriate limits and penalties we would enforce at home.

At the end of the day, coping with new technologies still requires good old-fashioned parenting principles and common sense. We instil the right values, model good behaviour and keep communication channels open so we lay a solid foundation from the start.

We don't ban our children from going out just because risks and reckless drivers abound on the roads. Instead, we teach them about safety and train them to exercise good judgment because there is much to learn and gain from exploring the world out there.

Similarly, tech innovations have opened up a whole new universe with untapped potential. And learning to use this powerful platform for good is an essential survival skill for the 21st century.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'Parenting in the brave new world'. Print Edition | Subscribe