When Digital Natives Become Parents

September 18, 2013

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Posted in: Infants & Toddlers, Young Adults

Topics: Culture + Society

The first generation of digital kids are now old enough to be parents themselves.  This is the Millennial Generation, born between 1980 and 2000, who grew up on video games, had access to email in grade school, cell phones in high school, and Facebook in college.  If it’s true that people resemble their times more than they resemble their parents, will this early exposure to, and immersion in, technology lead to defining characteristics as they become parents?

We already know a couple of things about this generation’s attitudes toward becoming parents, and toward technology.  First, while they might take a longer time to tie the knot, they certainly do want to be parents.  52% of Millennials say that being a good parent is “one of the most important things” in life, up 10% from the Generation Xers born between 1968 and 1979.  Millennials are also less likely than previous generations of young adults to believe that a child needs both a mother and father to grow up happily.  When asked about the defining characteristics of their cohort, many point to their use of technology.  And, they generally regard technology positively, seeing it as a force to make their lives easier, and to bring friends and family closer.

However, there is much about this new generation of parents that we don’t know.  How will their comfort and ease with technology affect the way in which they parent?  We assume that having grown up in a digital world, these natives will be able to set better media limits with their own children.  Data from a Kaiser study of older parents revealed that parents often don’t set limits because they are so perplexed by what their kids are doing online.  If a digitally-savvy parent feels comfortable navigating the web with their children, will they also be able to better protect their children from cyberbullying, sexting and the ills of problematic Internet behaviors? Will they be more likely to turn to the Internet or an app for parenting advice, rather than their own parents?  When a child has a fever, will they blast an email to a community mommy list-serve before trying to navigate the phone tree of the local pediatrician’s office?

Transition to parenthood is a paradoxical state—infants are totally dependent on their parents’ careful attunement to their needs and moods at just the time when these same parents are at their most frazzled, sleep deprived and depleted.  Could technology help with this paradox?  Perhaps these digital parents will derive benefits from their ease with technology. For example, they may feel less isolated, and so stave off postpartum depression by staying connected to their families via video chats.  There is even evidence that social networking provides a boost to a new mother’s well-being.  A recent study  suggests that moms who blog feel more connected to friends and family, which in turn is associated with maternal well-being.  And, maybe all that multitasking that digital natives perfected as adolescents, when they listened to music while emailing and doing their calculus, will turn out to be the perfect training for being parents who have to move quickly among multiple tasks.

A version of this post originally appeared and was written by the author (Fishel) in Psychology Today’s The Digital Family blog on January 18, 2012.

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Ellen Braaten

Ellen Braaten, Co-Director

Ellen Braaten, Ph.D. is co-director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospi...

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