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Engaging Parents in Tech

Published: November 3, 2023

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There’s a key audience that many developers of ed tech products for kids forget: parents. Yes, media needs to be designed with kids in mind. Yes, tech must meet kids’ needs and take their considerations, interests, capabilities, and so on into account. But where there’s a kid, there’s a parent. And the more the parents are active participants in their kids’ tech usage, the better it is for everyone. In other words, engaging parents in tech is key!

Kids benefit from engaging parent in tech

Parent involvement will look different depending on the age of the kid of course. The involvement is more hands-on and time-intensive for younger kids and more big picture value guidance through adolescence. But at every level, everyone benefits when parents are engaged in their kids’ tech use.

Younger kids

Family engaged with tech

Parents are essential, not only because younger kids will need their parents to buy products and will rely on them (some more, some less) to help them access and set up whatever tech they use. Parents are also important for helping young kids make sense of what they see on a screen. For example, many official guidelines for using screen media with young kids make a distinction between kids engaging with tech on their own, and families using screens as a way to interact with other people. That is, while guidelines generally discourage screen use for kids under approximately 2 years of age, they make an exception for video chatting with loved ones. Yet, even when screens are used as a means for social connection, young kids understand their interactions better when there’s a parent (or older sibling, or whoever) to help them facilitate the experience. That’s because young kids are still developing an understanding of screens and have difficulty transferring what they see on a screen to real life. So even for these kinds of live, social interactions, kids benefit from parent engagement.

Learning educational content from screens. The difficulty young kids have transferring learning from a two dimensional screen to the three dimensional world around them can also affect their ability to learn educational content. But there’s a good amount of evidence suggesting that preschoolers – and even toddlers – can learn more when an adult actively facilitates their experience. For example, one study showed that toddlers were 19 times more likely to transfer what they learned from a touch screen to a real object when their interactions with the screen were paired with an engaged and responsive parent. And, in another study, frequent and active parent meditation while watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood helped preschoolers demonstrate higher levels of empathy.

Older kids

Through the elementary school years, parents become less essential for the technical aspects of their kids’ media use. But, that doesn’t mean that parents are any less important.

Parents can still help extend kids’ learning by scaffolding experiences and getting kids more engaged, all so that kids get more out of their interactions with tech. As kids also use tech for school, they benefit when their parents are aware, engaged, and involved in their schoolwork, including whatever tech they are using.

Engaging parents

In addition, as kids of this age start exploring tech more widely, and often independently, parents will be particularly interested in their kids’ safety in digital spaces.

And, moving up, although it may not feel like it, parents are still an important influence on their tweens and teens. At this stage, parent engagement looks very different. Tweens and teens benefit when parents are involved, but are not micromanaging. That might look like focusing on awareness (what platforms are my kids using and how?) and open-ended discussions (what does their use mean to them?).

Parents of tweens and teens are also very much interested in safety — including concerns about how to safeguard their emotional wellbeing. Encouraging parents to be engaged in their kids’ lives is an important step towards helping protect their mental health.

Some how-to ideas for engaging parents in tech

  • Make it easy. Give parents clear ideas and instruction
  • Build parent engagement into the tech experience
  • Offer parent resources and a parent section
  • Encourage kids to get their parents involved
  • Address safety explicitly, and explain what safety measures exist
  • Help facilitate efforts to create a healthy tech / tech-free balance
  • Create guides on how to stay engaged or be part of older kids’ relationship to tech without micromanaging.
  • Respecting older kids/teens rights to exploration and expression while still allowing space for parents to be involved.
  • Make it clear that there’s an emphasis on safety and physical and mental health and wellbeing
  • Take advantage of kids’ natural inclination towards screens and tech by harnessing tech as a tool to facilitate connection by, for instance, creating family experiences or a collective family identity.

Final thoughts

For some, tech can be scary and there’s lots of anxiety about what it means for kids. When parents are positively and constructively involved, it may help calm their fears. Engage parents in feeling safe and they will be more positive about supporting healthy tech use. That’s why being purposeful and mindful about engaging parents in educational tech products is definitely a win win. Both kids and parents get better, safer, healthier, and more useful experiences. And, assuming that the product is decent, the more buy-in there is from parents, the more they’ll support their kids in using it. So, yes, design with kids in mind. But don’t forget their parents either.