“The importance of a strong, positive relationship between a parent and child cannot be overstated. Reams of research has shown this to be true,” writes Prof. Justin Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC). And yet over the 20+-year-long public discussion about child online safety we’ve seen so little evidence – especially in news coverage and hearings on Capitol Hill – that all this research has sunk in. At all.
It’s not just governments and reporters, either. Based on what we continue to see in the news and social media about parenting around tech, parents themselves don’t seem to be recognizing the power they and their children have in all this – the influence a strong parent-child bond has on safety online and social-emotional wellbeing everywhere and long after children grow up and leave home.
That’s why this research is so important. We really need to get this, I’d argue, before the next social tech wave – the metaverse – builds any further.
But let’s back up for a moment. The findings Dr. Patchin is writing about are from ongoing research he has conducted with Prof. Sameer Hinduja, his co-director of the CRC, the latest published this year in the Journal of Child and Family Studies: “Bullying and Cyberbullying Offending Among US Youth: The Influence of Six Parenting Dimensions.” In earlier research, the authors found that some 80% of US 12-17-year-olds “said there is an adult in their life that they ‘definitely’ wouldn’t want to disappoint.”
That study asked the middle and high school students “to respond to this question in their own words: ‘If you’ve ever stopped yourself from posting something online, what was it that stopped you?’” After quoting a bunch of their answers Patchin continued: “Scores of students responded to this question with ‘what mom may say’ or ‘what my parents might think’ or ‘what my parents might think if they saw it.’” These are examples of the power of what Patchin calls “vicarious [or indirect] supervision” – which means of course that we don’t have to be there in our children’s experiences, online or offline, for them to act in accord with their and their parents’ values.
What sort of parenting?
The parenting that powers vicarious supervision is what Patchin calls “compassionate authoritative parenting.” That’s not to be confused with “authoritarian” parenting (here’s one scholarly source on the difference, and here’s another, while this parenting blogger sums up the distinction simply: “Authoritative parents are strict and warm, while authoritarian parents are strict and cold”).
In writing about their latest research on this, Dr. Hinduja refers to six parenting practices, three associated with this kind of “positive parenting” – warmth, autonomy support and structure – and their opposite three associated with “negative parenting”: rejection, coercion and chaos. He adds that the positive parenting practices are “associated with lower bullying and cyberbullying to a statistically significant degree.” So compassionate authoritative parenting has powerful influence on a child’s behavior as well as a child’s safety and wellbeing offline as well as online.
Autonomy is key
Because the other five practices are fairly clear, a quick zoom in on supporting autonomy in our children. “Autonomy support” is about helping our children come into their own “through independent thinking and problem solving,” Hinduja writes. “Parents who provide high autonomy support allow their children to express themselves and make informed behavioral choices within an age-appropriate framework of scaffolding,” whereas “highly coercive parents are overly controlling and dictatorial, demanding compliance without compromise or thorough explanation.” The latter approach develops dependency in children and teaches them that control and surveillance is how we keep people safe. Supporting their agency, or autonomy, enables them to figure out how to keep themselves, their peers and their communities safe for the rest of their lives.
Autonomy is also a reward in its own right. Way back in 2012 Prof. Scott Nicholson told an audience of researchers and educators that the three intrinsic rewards that satisfy, motivate and increase trust (in all of us) are autonomy, relevance or relatedness and attaining competency or mastery.
We can trust ourselves and our kids more
Certainly it’s understandable that parents are concerned, sometimes even fearful, about the influence of digital tech and media on their children. I mean, take it from another scholar who has been studying this for decades, Prof. Sonia Livingstone in the UK:
“The digital has become the terrain on which we negotiate who we are, our identities, our relationships, our values and our children’s life chances. No wonder our anxieties and arguments about technology are often so fraught,” she said compassionately in her TED Talk.
It’s understandable, but amid all the worries of our weary world, I hope you can find comfort and confidence in hearing what this great research has found. Know that all the love, heartfelt intention and respect you pour into the relationship you have with your child has tremendous influence for good in them, their lives and their relationships with others.
- Prof. Justin Patchin’s blog post (2/28/22)
- Prof. Sameer Hinduja’s blog post (2/1/22)
- About pivotal scholarship on the control paradigm that has grown up around child online safety: Young People in Digital Society: Control Shift
- About internal vs. external safeguards in/for a child here in NetFamilyNews
- A strong antidote for avoiding a media siege mentality and a great tool for “compassionate authoritative parenting”
- Parenting for a Digital Future: How Hopes and Fears about Technology Shape Children’s Lives, by Sonia Livingstone and Alicia Blum-Ross and my review of the 2020 book
- “What Net safety can learn from digital game design” (where I talk about Prof. Nicholson’s findings