For many parents, there is a certain amount of fear attached to the idea that children ‘know’ how to use the internet, that they ‘speak a different language’ which inhibits adult’s engagement with their kids. Terms which have been coined such as ‘digital natives’ or ‘net generation’, help to perpetuate this idea that every child knows what they are doing online by reason of their age.

A more useful idea has developed from a team at Oxford University: that of the ‘digital resident’ and the ‘digital visitor’ defined more by attitude than by age. ‘Visitors’ use the internet as a tool: go in to complete a task, and leave. ‘Residents’ regard themselves as members of communities that exist online, rather than having access to an online toolbox. I’m most definitely a digital resident, though I’m officially far too old to be a ‘digital native’. But the digital, as Martha Lane Fox quoted in the Dimbleby Lecture in 2015, is no longer optional: “It’s not OK not to understand the internet anymore”.

The impact of the internet on family life is of more immediate concern to parents than the risks of grooming or cyberbullying

Digital literacy is a core skill in contemporary culture: peer pressure and bullying in particular can be challenged when families or groups use stories raised through digital media, allowing young people to identify and live out their core values, online and offline.

Ofcom’s 2012 survey found that managing the day-to-day impact of the internet on family life, such as the need to create family time away from the computer, to enforce bedtimes or to encourage physical activity, was of more immediate concern to parents than the risks of grooming, cyberbullying or access to inappropriate content.

When it comes to children interacting with the online environment, the following rules apply:

  • Do it for them.
  • Do it with them.
  • Watch while they do it.
  • Let them do it for themselves.

Online engagement for younger children should be done under the aegis of a responsible adult, rather than unsupervised, and preferably within a ‘whitelisted’ set of pages (sites pre-assessed and approved by a responsible adult), and as they get older, look at blacklisting certain sites as more freedom is given (so filtering out ‘undesirable’ sites).

A report listed things that had upset children, including online violence, “someone swearing at me”, and “a picture of my baby brother, who I don’t live with any more”

A filter could help, but filter efficacy is questionable, and tends to give parents a false sense of security: more soft controls and discussions about digital safety are more important. We need to remember that life is not ‘risk-free’, and online is now very much part of our lives. The simple advice given in a 2009 UK government campaign ‘Zip It, Block It, Flag It’ (don’t overshare online, don’t allow unfiltered results/open unknown attachments, and to let responsible adults know if a problem – who can then report to official sources if required) still holds.

Appropriate at what age?
Martha Payne, the nine-year-old food blogger of “NeverSeconds”, gave (with a little help from her parents) a series of tips on how her family have found ways to embed the digital into their lives. These included time limits (they have a budget of one hour each per day), the computer remains in public spaces, dad has the passwords to the blog and sees any comments first; facts should be questioned, no form filling without mum or dad, and she clicks to minimise the window if there’s anything she doesn’t like. Mostly, she says, remember to have fun.

We also need to focus on the individual strengths and vulnerabilities of each child. The factors that define ‘beneficial’ and ‘harmful’ experiences online and in video games will vary according to each child and their personal development. A report in The Guardian in February 2013 listed various things that had upset children, including online violence, “someone swearing at me”, “a picture of my baby brother, who I don’t live with any more”, and a picture of a cat that “looked like my pet that had to be put down”. It’s important to know your own child, rather than caring about national averages. Dr Tanya Byron gave extensive insights into the developmental stages of children in her 2008 governmental report, Byron Review, roughly as follows:

Pre-school: Children’s lives are focused strongly on family and the home, especially on developing relationships with the key adults in their lives. At this age children have little ability to differentiate between reality and fantasy, so find violence and emotional scenes hard to handle. Their “online diet” needs to be supervised and restricted in respect of both content and time.

Five to 11 years: As children start school, they begin to develop relationships with more people outside the family, including learning the social norms of friendships with other children, learning right and wrong, and distinguishing reality from fantasy.

At this age parents need to allow greater freedoms, but still within boundaries and accompanied by more discussion, enabling the child to develop their own critical evaluation and self-management skills as well as being supported when they cannot, or maybe, choose not to.

11 to 14 years: This is typically an era characterised by hormones as puberty strikes, and the emphasis for children moves largely from home and the family towards the external world, their peers, and “idols” in the quest to become “independent”. This means a shift from parental identification to peer identification, requiring a degree of experimentation that may involve taking risks.

Brain changes cause an inherent drive to seek out social experiences, especially online as outdoor, offline socialisation has become more restricted. They may start to actively seek out age-restricted material and games that are designed for adults, so keep the communication channels open for discussions of risk and challenging content.

Brain changes during puberty cause kids to seek out social experiences, especially online, as outdoor, offline socialisation has become more restricted

From 15 years onwards, officially the last stage of ‘childhood’, children take increasing responsibility for their own decisions and identities, as abstract thinking, judgement making, and own values and beliefs become fully developed.

There’s a range of excellent material online, from sites such as ThinkUKnow, especially videos from Hector’s World (which also offers a button for children to press a button to cover the screen if something distressing comes up), and Childnet, which offers an activity zone for primary school aged children. Get engaged, get familiar from a young age, but within a supportive discussion zone.

Dr Bex Lewis is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Director of Social Media Consultancy Digital Fingerprint. She is the author of ‘Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst’ Published by Lion Hudson 

More in Features


By , 4th July 2024
‘A standout literary thriller.’ THE FT ‘Ingenious, intriguing, colourful and very entertaining, this is the ideal summer holiday novel.’ LITERARY REVIEW

From book to screen

By , 28th February 2023
Free resources and tips for would be screenwriters, from a complete novice - and some professionals - as I navigate the process of adapting my novels for TV and film

Observer New Review Q&A

By , 22nd March 2022
An interview with Stephanie Merritt about Edith and Kim, the perils of writing about family, and why female spies often get overlooked

Researching Edith and Kim

By , 17th November 2021
From a compendium of stories about life at the Bauhaus to a Modernist memoir by the founder of the iconic Isokon, here are some of the books that inspired my forthcoming novel