Cathy Madavan acknowledges the benefits but also the pitfalls of today’s tech-filled world, and offers advice on how to navigate it all with the younger generation


Oh, how times have changed. Since we have now embraced doing shopping, dating, courses and booking online, it can be hard to remember depending on libraries, phone boxes and queues for the sales! This has impacted the way that our children are growing up too. I remember buying Smash Hits magazine to scrutinise pictures of Madonna and marvelling at Wonder Woman’s ability to wear her dazzling satin outfit without it falling off (defying the laws of physics), but these women were like another species – unattainable and inaccessible. Today’s celebrities chat directly to us via a device in our hand, sharing their opinions and tips for being fabulous. Extraordinary. Likewise, when I left school at the end of each day, I left my peers behind. I didn’t have backstage access to their homes, and I didn’t have to deal with their unwelcome or unkind messages at any hour. 

The digital revolution has changed so much for us if we are parents. Social media has become an integral part of life, shaping the way many people connect, communicate and consume information. As mothers, we are now constantly aware of the show-stopping birthday cakes other parents create, the outfits they have crafted for World Book Day (give me strength), and the endless wholesome activities other families enjoy at weekends (while always smiling, of course). For the record, I buy chocolate caterpillar cakes for every birthday and regularly transformed a white sheet using safety pins to make almost every themed outfit for school (you’d be surprised!). But that’s not very Instagramtastic, is it?

Pressure points

Of course, the online world can have numerous benefits for us and our children. There are apps to teach languages, to write music, to video call distant relatives and to learn other new skills from experts in their field. We might also enjoy something simple like laughing and sharing cat memes in group chats. But the myriad of challenges for girls are also well documented, and these affect their mental, emotional and social wellbeing.

In a recent survey for the BBC, 58 per cent of teenage girls polled said they follow influencers online, of which more than a third said influencers make them feel they need to change the way they look. Worryingly, a fifth of the teenage girls who responded said they had received unwanted nude images or videos from a peer. With more than a third of boys admitting they had watched videos of Andrew Tate and his misogynist views combined with the ubiquity of often violent pornography viewed (on average) from the early teen years, many girls expressed their feelings that the landscape for girls and what is expected of them is getting worse not better. 

So, what can we do? In a world with so much body image pressure, cyberbullying, comparison culture and social isolation – which was all compounded by the extended screen time precipitated by the pandemic – there are still things we can do to positively navigate the opportunities and the challenges. 

Open communication

Encourage open and honest communication and discourage secrecy or a sense that there are taboo subjects. Be intentional about asking your children about their online experiences, concerns and interests. By fostering a non-judgmental environment, you are more likely to stay informed about their online activities and challenges.

Set clear boundaries

Now, this may be easier said than done, but it is worth trying to establish clear guidelines regarding screen time and social media use. Develop a family media plan together that outlines when and how much time is appropriate for various activities. For example, we restricted TV and gaming until after homework was completed.

Lead by example

We are role models to our children, and our example is influential. If we demonstrate healthy screen-time habits and prioritise face-to-face interactions, it will help. Alternatively, if I am constantly scrolling, I can hardly blame my daughters for doing the same! If I compare myself negatively to women influencers online, rather than curating what and who I follow, it will legitimise this self-defeating behaviour to my kids. 

By fostering a non-judgmental environment, you are more likely to stay informed about their online activities and challenges

Educate about online safety

We may not feel like experts, but our daughters need support to develop the skills needed to stay safe online. Encourage learning together about privacy settings and the risks of sharing personal information or engaging in online interactions with people they don’t know. Help them to become responsible digital citizens who care for themselves and others online. 

Develop tech-free times and zones

When mine were young, since Facebook, Instagram and YouTube (and the rest) were constantly vying for their attention, we worked hard to keep our daughters busy in the off-line world. It was hard work investing in musical activities, church groups and positive relationships, but they thank us now. Interestingly, they have also valued our designation of tech-free zones in the home, such as the dining table and bedrooms. 

Teach critical thinking 

It is essential our children are enabled to think critically so they can evaluate the content they encounter online for themselves. It is good to discuss the difference between real and fake news, how algorithms that target them specifically work, how to verify information and how to handle online conflicts responsibly. While we don’t want to cancel everyone who has a different opinion to us, neither do we want to overlook harmful content – it takes wisdom to distinguish between the good and bad in all we engage with.

Be supportive 

The rising generation are growing up in a world where artificial intelligence, big data, social media and hybrid working are the norm. For both our daughters (now in their 20s) technology is a core part of their chosen professions, and both can code a website and create a spreadsheet in ways I cannot fathom. It is inevitable that screens and technology will be part of their world. The same is true for us. Therefore, we don’t want to instil fear, but instead can pray for wisdom, so that together we can stay safe and learn to use these tools to make the world a better place.