2018-02-14 06:56:14 Voices

Chinese parents today face a challenge familiar to moms and dads around the world: How can they prevent their children from disrupting their studies by spending too much time on the internet?

Last July, in a bid to curb gaming marathons on its mobile battle arena game “Honour of Kings,” Chinese internet giant Tencent set daily play time limits for minors. This unprecedented move came after parents and schools complained that children had become addicted to the wildly popular game.

While Chinese media have periodically covered internet addiction among children and related issues like cyberbullying and online pornography, there has been little academic research into parental supervision over their children’s internet use, and the degree of confidence parents have in their abilities to help their kids benefit from the internet and protect them from online dangers.

In an attempt to understand this growing issue, my research team at The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2014 spoke to nearly 1,600 Shanghainese families — all of whom had children between 9 and 17 years old — and examined the methods parents used to supervise their children’s internet use.

Although Chinese media regularly report on children being sent to military-style boot camps to “cure” their internet addiction, excessively strict parenting styles are actually uncommon, at least in Shanghai. Our research found that just over 40 percent of Shanghainese parents used so-called authoritative parenting styles to curb internet use. This entails placing specific demands on children while also providing warmth and autonomy, to discuss and define responsible and irresponsible behavior.

Authoritarian parenting styles places hard-and-fast restrictions on children, but parents do not explain the reasons behind them.

Another 46 percent of parents displayed various combinations of authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive styles, while the remaining 14 percent did not show any clear parenting style when it comes to internet use. There is an important difference between authoritative and authoritarian parenting styles: The former sets clear rules and requires the child to follow them consistently; the latter sometimes places hard-and-fast restrictions on children — but parents do not explain the reasons behind them, and expect their children to obey regardless. Indeed, the nature of authoritarianism means that such parents are free to rip up the rulebook on a whim.

An authoritative parent, for instance, sets a limit on their children’s internet time and ensures that the limit is always consistent. At the same time, they communicate with their kids, encouraging them through discussion to think about what constitutes responsible internet use. Authoritarian parents, meanwhile, will arbitrarily decide that their child has been on the computer for too long, and flatly demand that they log off immediately.

Permissive parents, as you might expect, do not set many rules for their children’s internet use, and tend to avoid confrontations about it.

Most Shanghainese parents opted for authoritative rather than authoritarian approaches. Their tactics display the many simple ways that parents can productively influence the internet activities of their children. For example, these parents may ask their kids for help in using the internet to find practical information such as weather forecasts or transport routes — tasks showing the child that their internet mastery is valued and useful.

Parents in lower socio-economic groups tend to express less confidence in their abilities to teach their children to use the internet in safe and beneficial ways.

Similarly, by playing games or watching films together online, parental supervision of children’s internet activities becomes a shared family experience. These methods can also help Chinese parents become more confident in their abilities to guide their children’s online activity, and should therefore begin when their kids first start going online.

Authoritarian styles ignore the need for two-way communication between parents and their kids. I have come across people in the course of my research who literally pull out the computer’s power cable to stop their children from going online. Forceful measures like this damage parent-children relationships, cause conflict, and occasionally lead children to express their anger through violence.

Although authoritative parenting is common among households of all income brackets, parents in lower socio-economic groups tend to express less confidence in their abilities to teach their children to use the internet in safe and beneficial ways. This is because poorer parents tend to be less computer-literate, and therefore struggle to play an active role in their children’s online lives.

Today, people of all ages surf the internet on their smartphones. It is therefore more difficult for parents to control their children’s internet access even if they want to. Yet our recent study in Hong Kong on the use of smartphones and internet parenting shows an authoritative style is still more effective than other methods if parents indeed want to set boundaries on smartphone use.

Chinese parents must re-examine how they treat their children and learn to strike the right balance between being too authoritarian and too laissez-faire. When parents actively participate in their children’s online activities and discuss responsible use of the internet with them, both they and their kids will benefit more from the internet, leading to lifelong learning, problem-solving, and more fulfilling social connections.

Editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: E+/VCG)