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A guide to parenting in the digital age

iParent by Neha J Hiranandani is a well-written guide for parents to help navigate their children online

We are peculiarly challenged to parent effectively in this age
We are peculiarly challenged to parent effectively in this age (Unsplash)

It’s an odd choice of TV show to get parenting advice from, but one of my favourite moments during the first season of the spy thriller Mr and Mrs Smith is when Jane Smith starts talking to a man and his young son, immersed in his phone, at a bar. The man says ruefully that his son won’t connect with him — he’s too immersed in this video game he’s playing. Jane takes the man’s phone (she has a nefarious intent behind this, of course) and downloads the same game before handing back his phone. 

Also read: Let kids enjoy some alone time

We are often told that as children grow up, we should “be their friends more than parents”, yet no one tells you how you can be friends with a teenager. Is it by letting go of all rules and boundaries and by being a ‘cool mom’ instead of a ‘regular mom’, a la Mean Girls? I’ve found that doesn’t work. You become friends laughing over school gossip; by sharing that funny reel you just saw that reminded you of your child; by playing the same video games as them.    

Neha J Hiranandani, author of the new book iParent: Embracing Parenting in the Digital Age, gets this. In her book, a guide to being a parent while helping your children safely navigate the confusing online world they inhabit almost constantly, she doesn’t indulge in hand-wringing of the ‘kids these days’ sort. Instead, she advises parents to get to know this world better. “Technology offers our kids vast advantages as they bypass borders, collaborate with people around the world and learn the languages of countries that we struggle to place on a map. They can engage in discussions around body positivity and gender neutrality—concepts that parents don’t always know and that schools often forget to teach,” she writes. “This book is an exploration of those worlds as they unfold. In fact, it’s an attempt to join the kids in their web.” 

It’s not about stalking your child on Discord or Roblox. Hiranandani does it effectively— by playing Metaverse game Meta Quest 2; noting the dopamine hit from her own Instagram posts; and by using image filter apps like InstaFace and FaceTune. She watches influencers like Maral and Em Ford, popular with pre-teens, and confronts concepts like Ana (Anorexia) and Mia (Bulimia), anthropomorphized forms of eating disorders that have dedicated online forums attracting young girls, and recalls her own brush with body image issues as a teenager. “Experiencing anorexia in the 1990s is proof enough that Instagram and FaceTune didn’t invent eating disorders. But while toxic beauty standards predate the Internet, social media is indisputably promoting them at unprecedented rates,” she writes, talking about trending hashtags like #thinspiration that are almost cult-like in their ability to motivate young people into doing something dangerous. 

As parents, we are peculiarly challenged to parent effectively in this age, with little experience of what being constantly online as a child means. Hiranandani points out that we are all, in a way, inside this vast, unmonitored social experiment to see how digital natives will impact our world long-term, or exactly how living a large part of their lives online will impact children physically, emotionally and psychologically. There is no precedent in human history for this, she emphasises, so we must learn as we go along.

Books like this will certainly help us see the issues more clearly, even though they may not enable us to actually resolve them. Hiranandani does offer some advice on helping our children be safely online, such as familiarising yourself with digital spaces, adopting the ‘slow tech’ approach, and coming up with a family ‘contract’ on online behaviour, but ultimately it boils down to what good parenting has always meant — openness, trust and communication. 

Also read: Storytellers adapt tales to the digital age


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