Parenting Digital Natives

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

Parents in the current age are digital immigrants. Sure, you might have had computers in your childhood.  And sure, you may have taken up technology wholeheartedly and rely on it daily to connect with friends and do your job. But it has only been since 2008, when the first iPhone was released, that holding the internet in your hand wherever you were started to become the norm. Contrast your own developmental trajectory with that of children growing up right now, who have pretty much had “technology” like this their whole life… It’s definitely a different childhood experience from your own… that of being a “digital native”.  Parents of the current time are walking a new unforged path in being the first generation of digital-immigrant parents raising digital-native kids. It’s tough and there is a lot to learn.

A modern yet age-old problem

In saying that, I do want to point out that this may well be a modern day example of a universal and age-old parenting challenge. Every generation of parent has faced the challenge of trying to understand and respond to the world their children are growing up in, where their child’s world may be quite different to their own. Their child’s future will likely unfold quite differently from their own, growing up in different social, political, economical, and technological times. Another universal parenting challenge that this sits within, is that parents want to improve on the experience they had themselves and give their child a better life somehow.

Use values to guide you

I guess my point, without wanting to downplay the specific difficulties of parenting a digitally native child, is that it is not totally unique for parents to feel a chasm with the experience of the younger generation, be somewhat baffled by the world they see their children growing up in, and unsure of the best way forward to parent. I’m saying this to instil some hope and confidence that you are doing much that is helpful already. Since you have no crystal ball to predict the future world trends your child will face, you can at the very least think about what values should put any human in good stead to navigate whatever life throws at them. As a parent, this involves reflection on the values you yourself were brought up with, and sorting through them… considering what seems important to instil in your next generation… and what values may be time to question… or even to discard.  (Being a Parent Like You reader, I suspect that 'values guided parenting' is already important to you and that you are doing this kind of reflection as a parent). 

Since you have no crystal ball to predict the future world trends your child will face, you can at the very least think about what values should put any human in good stead to navigate whatever life throws at them.
Values Guided Parenting

But let’s also look a bit more specifically at the issue and consider some of the challenges as a parent of digital natives,  as you try to see the world from their very different perspective, with the wisdom of your own life experiences. I’m aware there are a host of issues like understanding privacy settings, terms and conditions regarding the use of personal data, cyberbullying, and online predatory behaviour. For today, I’m going to focus in on two areas – “tech addiction” and sexual behaviour online. 

Tech addiction or problematic use?

I’m going to refer to “Technology/tech” as a broad term here, incorporating internet, phone, social media, and gaming use, all together.  I’m also going to question the use of the term “addiction” a little.

Is it possible to become addicted to technology? Well yes… I think it is… Really any kind of behaviour we find rewarding can become addictive in a pathological way, from nail biting, to exercise, to shopping… but at this stage only online gaming has emerged as a professionally agreed on technology addiction. If we think of addiction in the true sense, we are talking about a change to neurochemical reactions in the brain, building up a tolerance to the behaviour such that more and more of it is needed to get the same “hit” of pleasure, experiencing withdrawal symptoms when access to the addiction is taken away, seeking out the addicted activity to such a degree that other requirements in life are being neglected (e.g. school, friendships), or people are putting themselves in risky situations to gain access to their addiction. If you think this is actually the case for your child then that sounds worthwhile getting in some professional help as you will need the support to work through this together.

Problematic technology use

I think however that the term “addiction” is colloquially over-used and most times does not refer to addiction in this true sense but probably behaviour that can more aptly be termed “problematic use”.  For example, it might be that the use level seems really high, a bit unhealthy, and that there is a level of difficulty seen in getting off the tech when asked. 

Something to keep in mind is that apps and games are designed to keep rewarding you intermittently to keep you engaged with them. There is a level of impulse control that is difficult, particularly in children, when these kind of reward pathways are triggered.  You might see some emotionally dysregulated behaviour as a result of asking your child to get off their device. But this is not necessarily a sign of addiction/withdrawal. You may see similar emotions when asked to end any pleasurable activity, e.g. playing with a friend, getting out of playing in rainy puddles, finishing up reading time to go to bed. 

Possible issues arising from problematic tech use

The research in this area is ever emerging and thoughts always changing, but we do know that there can be problems that arise with over-use of tech, for example it seems like

  • Anxiety/depression symptoms can increase from “FOMO” (fear of missing out) on social media

  • Anxiety/depression symptoms are associated with gaming excessively

  • Some difficulties with attention and engagement in learning – which arises from a habit of multi tasking on tech and going for that “quick hit” of something enjoyable on the device rather than the harder cognitive work of reading and delving deeper

  • Reduced interest or motivation for face-to-face activities since online options may fill that need pretty well

  • Reduced engagement in physical activity

  • On a broader social note, it seems that there is a slowing down in rates of independence in teens (e.g. age of getting a license, having a job)

What we aren’t really sure of is whether these problems are directly due to the problematic use, or whether problematic use arises out of the same underlying issues as the above.  For example, someone who is prone to social anxiety or low self esteem may develop a reliance on technology to interact and reduce their face-to-face activities. A similar important point to make is that some of the issues that happen in the tech-world (take online bullying for example) are not specific to the digital native experience, just a new form of a behaviour that has always existed in children’s lives.

What can parents do to prevent problematic use?

Parents can be aware of guidelines for tech use at different ages (a great guide is listed at: 

Very young kids

  • With very young children limiting exposure to only short periods of time when you are sharing the technology together seems wise. 

Young kids

  • As children get older, practices that will help include: staying involved in your child’s media use, and being discerning about the content that kids are accessing (some content is healthy and educational, and some is low quality yet is very engaging), designating tech-free spaces or times (e.g. meal times, phone out of the bedroom to sleep), and of course, setting a good example with your own use! A really great site for advice on these issues and keeping abreast of what tech and content is popular with children is common sense media ( 

Older kids and teens

  • With older children and teens, you want them to be learning to self regulate their use and it will be helpful to have conversations together about what they personally feel about their use. Up to 50% of teens in some surveys report “Feeling addicted” to technology. So this might mean there is some self awareness of the problems arising for them, and this is great to converse about and come up with strategies together on managing use and prioritising responsibilities and other important leisure activities.

Sexuality development for digital natives

We are naturally sexual beings, all through our life, and it is normal developmentally to have questions and be curious to learn more about sexuality. Being digital natives, of course your kids will at some stage turn to technology for advice and as a space to explore sexuality. So you need to be aware of this and ready for some important conversations about this, because obviously not all the content or behaviours occurring online are going to support your family’s values.

Sexuality education is key

In general, parents have an incredibly important role to help children learn about sexuality and healthy relationships. This education should start from an early age, (at a developmentally appropriate pitch!) as generally youth who have reached sexual maturity are not interested in seeking out advice on this topic from parents anymore. But… it’s sex! Isn’t that something we’re told not to talk about in polite company? Many people struggle to talk about it. Parents might feel shame or awkwardness to talk about sexuality, and so they avoid it. Perhaps no one taught them how to do it.

Please bear in mind that access to sexual education is listed on international charters and documents as a human right. Why? It is protective against abuse, promotes satisfying relationships, sexual safety, reproductive health, gender equality, and contributes to positive personality development. Yet, on a regular basis children and teens are exposed to contradictory and confusing messages, (just like parents probably were at that age too).

Inform yourself… and talk

I think it is extremely important to be aware of the digital native experience (e.g. that your children may go to the internet to see pornography to get “educated”, or may explore sexually by sending nude text messages), but perhaps the bigger issue for parents here is being comfortable with the overall education of your kids about sexuality, sex, healthy relationships, consent and respect. This will include the need at some point to teach your kids about the nature of pornography as being an unrealistic portrayal of sexual relationships, and the need to learn about what the consequences may be, socially and legally, for young people who send a nude “sext”. 

Perhaps the bigger issue for parents here is being comfortable with the overall education of your kids about sexuality, sex, healthy relationships, consent and respect.

Keep the conversation going

If you have discussed sexuality at home in a comfortable way, then questions are able to be asked, and kids won’t feel as much pull to go covert and seek information for themselves from unreliable sources.  If you’ve openly discussed matters around consent, respect, safety, honesty, and equality more generally within relationships, that will be really protective for your child to know why something does not feel right for them with regards to any coercive or peer pressured sexual exploration, and to stick up for themselves and speak out.  If you do not feel confident in this education, know that you’re not alone, but I do urge you to work on building your confidence to do so. Perhaps enrol in a course, attend information evenings or read some information for yourself to build your confidence. Keep yourself informed of what is going on at school with sexuality education. It should be that your child is getting comprehensive education, about the broader notion of sexuality and respectful relationships, not just the biological facts of sex, periods, and wet dreams. 

The upshot

The reality of the world for kids growing up today is that they have easy access, at all times, to technology. People seem to want that, and gain benefit from that, and can broaden their mind from that. There is no doubt that your kids will run rings around you in their abilities in the tech realm as they grow up, if they haven’t already! However it raises issues for development, issues that did not have careful thought and consideration by society prior to the rapid proliferation of all this tech… and that leaves parents and educators trying hard to keep up! In many ways I think it that navigating these issues comes back to thoughtful, values-based parenting practices more-so than a list of rules and restrictions about it.  I urge you to think about your personal views on tech use and the future of your digital native child when you are considering how best to tackle some of the issues.

Further reading:

Tech use guidelines

Being up to date on tech

“sending nudes” 


Talking about sexuality

Dr Angie Randell is a clinical psychologist with a PHD on the topic of child development.

Angie has been working as a Psychologist since 2006, and in much of that time she has focused on working with children, adolescents and their families. She has an interest in development across the whole lifespan. She currently works in private practice at Samford Valley, Brisbane City and online.

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