Putting Parents in the Picture: Katharine Hill Interview, War Cry

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In her book Left to Their Own Devices?, the UK director of Care for the Family, Katharine Hill, aims to help parents feel confident about raising their children in the digital age.

She tells me about the concerns that led her to write it: ‘Smartphones and online devices are good in that we use them to keep connected with our family, we have access to information at the touch of a screen and there are games and resources which are great for children – but there are also massive dangers. Even if our children don’t have a smartphone, their friends will. Young people are facing problems with pornography, internet addiction, sexting, grooming, cyberbullying and the struggle to find their worth and identity on social media. As parents, our job is to teach them how to be safe in a digital world, just as we teach them how to be safe when crossing the road.’

Katharine explains that before parents can help their offspring navigate the digital age effectively, they need to recognise the difference in how adults and children approach digital technology.

‘By and large, most parents are digital visitors,’ she says. ‘They visit the internet to do a task, such as online shopping or sending an email. Once the task is done, they log off. But the younger generation are more likely to be digital residents. They have grown up with digital technology and 24/7 access to the internet, so their whole life becomes caught up in it. It’s possible to be a digital resident safely, but the worry for parents occurs when they fall behind their children and fail to keep up with their digital knowledge.’

When it comes to problems such a sexting, porn and internet addiction, Katharine believes that there are two main reasons why some young people end up making unwise choices.

‘Scientists have discovered that, in a teenager’s brain, the prefrontal cortex is still developing – and that’s the part that enables a person to defer instant gratification for long-term gain. It’s sometimes called the “moral policeman”, because it helps us to make sensible decisions.

The younger generation are more likely to be digital residents

‘So, a parent might fail to understand why their teenage daughter is Facetiming her boyfriend till 3am on the night before a GCSE exam, but the reality is that the daughter probably hasn’t thought through the consequences. Her brain isn’t fully developed yet.

‘Secondly, peer pressure is a huge factor influencing young people. If there’s a group of lads gathered round a computer looking at porn, it’s going to be very difficult for one of them to say no. The need for a young person to fit in and be accepted is massive.’

What, then, can parents do to help protect their children from digital dangers?

‘When it comes to porn and sexting, it’s important for families to sit down together and have age-appropriate conversations about healthy relationships and boundaries,’ says Katharine. ‘Parents need to make it clear that porn isn’t real – that there is something better for their children to aim for in their personal relationships.

‘It’s worth talking about the fact that once something is online, it’s online. If the family is having a conversation about sexting, for example, a parent could try to set out the scenario in its most basic terms, saying: “You would never stand up topless in front of your math class – so why would you send a topless photo to a boy at school, who could send it on to someone else?” We want to give our young people the confidence to say no.

‘A good idea is to create a family internet or media agreement. That means setting out some clear rules about what is and isn’t allowed in the home. Some questions worth considering are: Where and when do we use our devices? In our bedrooms? Only after homework? Where do we charge our phones – downstairs overnight? It’s important that the rules are age-appropriate and reflect our family’s values, not the values of our children’s friends.’

Despite the best efforts of parents to ensure the online safety of their children, there are still times when young people make mistakes. In such cases, Katharine urges parents to stay as calm as possible.

The need to fit in and be accepted is massive

‘Let’s say our child has been sexting. Our initial reaction is to be mad – but that’s not helpful,’ she says. ‘We need to listen, keep calm and reassure them that we will help them to deal with any consequences. We all make mistakes – but they need to know that we will be there to support them, whatever happens.

‘Navigating a digital world as a parent can be a bit of a minefield, but it’s not hopeless – we have everything to play for. No one knows our children as we do. We are the greatest influence on our child’s life. It’s down to us to equip our children so that in a world of unlimited possibilities, they have the strength of character to make good choices.’


This article was originally published in The War Cry UK, November 2018 

‘Left to Their Own Devices?’ is a really good book. I don’t say that very often!

It’s also a very sane book! My children are in their 30s. When they were young, the Internet hardly existed and a screen, such as they were, was primarily the television.

So this book is such an important title, especially for families who are struggling with their children’s time on screen.

‘Struggling’ is not the wrong word – every day appears hard, and it’s clearly a battle to stay on top of where kids may be going next on-screen. Yet the book is clear; 15 chapters and all fairly short. It’s practical and there are great cartoons throughout the text (thanks to illustrator, David McNeil).

When we meet parents on our Care for the Family events, questions concerning how to help their children navigate the world of technology leave all other topics in the shade. Many parents feel anxious and bemused.

The book aims to take struggling parents through to ‘confident’ parenting. Quite a claim, isn’t it? Even toddlers are often well ahead of parents when it comes to dealing with screens. How on earth do you stop what is happening in your family? What are the ground rules to apply?

This is a big subject, and one which will continue to concern us well into the future, I’m sure!

It struck me reading this title, that digital technology presents a remarkable aspect to our children’s lives, and yet one which can go so horribly wrong. I’m glad that I’m older, can look back as a grandparent, and not have to deal with all that our own children are trying to handle.

Above all, we should pray that God will help all parents work through some of these complicated issues.

When was the last time you heard someone speak on this subject in a church?


The Book – Chapter by Chapter

FACT – Did you know that Twitter was invented just over 10 years ago?

Chapter 1. There are three core issues: Content (what children see online), Contact (who they are talking to online) and Conduct (how they behave online). Katharine Hill points out that digital visitors, i.e. many parents, and digital residents (most of our offspring) occupy quite different areas of life.

Chapter 2 reminds us that technology can be as a lifesaver in the home. Being in touch is a great advantage. Software allows us to contact people around the world. It’s not all bad, and we should remember this.

Chapter 3 mentions ‘authoritarian’ parents where children may feel hemmed in and suffocated, ‘permissive’ parents where children have no security and then ‘assertive’ parents with a firm but fair style. Which one are you?

Chapter 4 looks at ‘too much screen time’. The big issue! A real battleground in many homes, and the source of many confrontation and rows.

From Chapter 4 onwards, there is a section, ‘What can parents do’? Katherine Hill’s advice in these areas is simply brilliant for all parents.

Chapter 5: The issue of online and off-line relationships.

Chapter 6: Everything children do is online!  The 24/7 ‘always all’ culture means that our children have no time to be ‘bored’ or even just to ‘be’.

Chapter 7: In my view, this is the best chapter in the book! Social media plays such a huge part in a child’s life today, especially for teenagers. The big question here for everyone is, ‘am I loved’?

Chapter 8. Pornography is everywhere, and easily available on smartphones. The sexualised culture today is the ‘wallpaper’ of children’s lives (Bailey Report 2011). For older teenagers: watch the YouTube video uploaded by Thames Valley police to address the issues of consenting sex: ‘Tea and consent’.

Chapter 9. Sexting – when someone sends sexually explicit texts of photos naked or semi naked. In 2014, 37% of 13 to 25-year-olds have sent naked picture of themselves via smartphone app. 49% believe sexting is harmless fun. Yet, sexting is illegal for under 18’s and what goes online, stays online.

Chapter 10. Dealing with bullying. Now there is no safe haven, not even at home. The bully can reach their prey anytime and anywhere. One in five young people in the UK have been affected by online bullying. See www.stopcyberbullying.org

Chapter 11. Grooming is an issue to strike terror into the heart of any parent. 13 to 14-year-olds represent the largest single victim group. The anonymity of digital communication means there is huge scope for the predator. Grooming also can take place via computer gaming.

Chapter 12. In Care for the Family, the top list of concerns are – (1) worries about are too much screen time and (2) Internet addiction. Children as young as four are addicted to iPads and smartphones. This addiction can be harder to kick than drugs!

Chapter 13. Consumer culture. Today’s parents have a harder job to combat pester-power than in previous generations due to the 24/7 presence of advertising to digital technology. ‘These days children are under greater pressure to grow up too quickly’ (Bailey Review 2011).

Chapter 14. All kinds of families and all kinds of issues. Single parents or blended families? Co-parenting across two families? These situations can be very challenging.

An observation. On page 131: Currently 14 million grandparents in the UK who provide childcare for their grandchildren and many more close contact with them.

‘The reassurance that they are loved simply for who they are’.

 Chapter 15. ‘Teaching them to learn to discern’.  Katharine Hill says:

We can put every protection in the universe in place, our home can be a digitally impenetrable Fort Knox with every safeguards known to man installed, but it doesn’t protect our children when they are away from home.

Our role as parents is a positive one. …we teach our children to manage their freedoms well, training them from the inside out to make wise choices in a world where all choices are possible. We do this placing values in their hearts that will be the compass for their lives.


This review was first published at www.clcbookshops.com

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