Parents as shoulder angels: Conversations can make up for media parenting weaknesses

friends on cell phone

What I want most as a parent is for my kids to listen to the little angel on the one shoulder, and to ignore the little devil on the other. Little do parents know, however, that what we do today can become the shoulder angel our kids need.

Let me say this as directly and clearly as I can—when it comes to media parenting, there is absolutely, unequivocally, impossibly no way that parents to know everything that their children do, or see, online. We think we can, but research shows we can’t. For example, 60 percent of teen Internet users have created online accounts that their parents don’t know about, while only 28 percent of parents will admit this. And when it comes to media parenting, we cannot do our job as parents until we come to terms with the fact that we can’t control everything. We could employ the most sophisticated bugging software, take their smartphone away, and move to a mountaintop in Kazakhstan, and our kids would find a way to do things online without us knowing.

But this does not mean you can’t do something about it.

What if I told you that you could plant a bug on your child that would speak to them whenever they encounter questionable content online? What if I told you that you could, in essence, give your child the shoulder angel that you want them to have? Would that help you feel better about not being ‘in the know’ about your children’s online activities?

Here’s the secret to becoming the shoulder angel you want to be. Our approach to media parenting, especially as children approach adolescence, needs to change from needing to protecting our kids, to empowering our kids. As Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance said, “In an era where there’s a new app every day, it’s important that we change the lens of online safety from a tracking and monitoring perspective to a more empowering approach that prepares young people to better respond to the various challenges they will likely encounter in their online lives.”

In other words, rules about media use are great. Yes, kids need them. But rules protect, they don’t empower. What empowers them is understanding why their media choices are critical. What empowers them is knowing what to do when they encounter questionable media content. This type of empowerment does not come from rules. It comes from parent-child conversations about media.

I’ve posted previously about research showing that parent-child conversations about undesirable media content can help kids make media choices when the parent is not around. In essence, then, the conversations you have about media content today can only resurface in the form of whispers from a shoulder angel if you have the conversations in the first place. Shoulder angels are funny that way—they are more likely to say what we want them to say if we tell them what to say.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m begging you to start talking to—empowering—your kids. And just for funsies, here’s a fun video about shoulder angels. And since you’re going to watch this anyway, invite your kiddos to watch it with you. You might as well start a media conversation over a slice of sketch comedy.

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