Regulating teenagers’ digital practices: a challenge for parents?


During adolescence, friends and classmates or leisure time – the child’s “peers” – take an increasingly important place in his life, which destabilizes the balance of the relationships he maintains with his parents. These people of the same age offer him other points of reference and have a growing influence on his tastes, encouraging him to develop new modes of sociability, markers of emancipation from parents as well as autonomy. cultural .

Products from cultural industries, essential components of youth cultures, become signs of belonging that we must bear. Among them, digital tools constitute privileged media of entertainment, sociability, and information through which adolescents conform to group expectations and individualize their practices. For young people, the bedroom becomes a privileged space to develop activities away from the gaze of adults.

Faced with these emancipatory behaviors, parents strive to support transitions while seeking to guarantee academic success, the development of their children and family balance. Depending on the familiarity they have with digital technology, they are more or less sensitive or permeable to moral panics around the “dangers of screens” circulating in public spaces.

Digital, a tool for knowledge and entertainment

Idée research , an operation supported by the State as part of the e-FRAN component of the Future Investment Program , operated by Caisse des Dépôts (covering a socially and geographically heterogeneous sample of more than 800 Breton parents of fifth grade students), indicates that 75% of parents validate the idea that messaging, digital social networks or video games prevent their teenager from doing more interesting things. Around a third even consider that they have a negative effect on their behavior.

On the other hand, more than 70% consider that it is important for their teenager to have access to the Internet when doing their homework. Parents thus tend to oppose a legitimate “digital” as a tool of knowledge to a “digital” that is more stupid, even harmful, in its more specifically juvenile uses and all wish to regulate these practices.

Data from INEDUC research funded by the National Research Agency (ANR) allowed us to identify the family dynamics around adolescents’ screen practices . For parents, their regulation is all the more difficult as teenagers seek to preserve their space of freedom and decompression. They are often alone at home when they return from school. Parents then wonder about their activities, compliance with the rules regarding screens, homework done in their absence. But the answer is not obvious: should we cut the Internet connection at the risk of hindering access to homework now online via ENT, collaboration between peers and access to online information?

Parents are under pressure from their teenagers for whom integration into the peer group involves obligatory steps: increasingly early ownership of smartphones, access to popular video games and digital social networks. Parents are hesitant to ban them for fear of marginalizing their teenager from the peer group.

Ultimately, parents adopt regulation strategies based on their educational objectives, the constraints they face, their representations of juvenile digital practices and their proximity to digital culture.

Manage devices and screen time

The regulation strategies put in place by parents are deployed in four areas, the first being that of equipment. There is a socio-cultural differentiation of devices available within the home, owned by adolescents or shared. In working-class environments, parents equip their children earlier with digital devices for leisure purposes (consoles, tablets, smartphones). Family computer equipment, on the other hand, often depends on the eldest child’s entry into college, when it is generally present in advantaged environments, regardless of the children’s education.

Also, most parents equip their children with a cell phone for security reasons, so that they can be reached at any time or because, tired of fighting, they give in to the fact that “everyone has one” . Equipment is nevertheless more often discussed and delayed in advantaged families.

The management of “screen time”, the second area on which parents’ strategies focus, is currently crystallizing, from a protectionist perspective, part of public discourse. It is also the main source of conflict and negotiation between parents and adolescents. Differences are nevertheless observed between families: while some parents trust their teenagers and poorly control the time they spend in front of screens, others control it strongly and use parental control tools.

But for most families, control remains flexible, essentially focused on the times of falling asleep: parental discourse links health issues and the demands of school work to impose their limits. Finally, if all families express difficulties in managing temporalities, some adopt a certain “laisser faire”, particularly when the social conditions of existence, for example single parenthood or staggered working hours, complicate the possibilities of supervision. Generally speaking, digital practice times are more restricted in advantaged families, with adolescents also being more likely to increase the number of supervised extra-curricular activities.

Difficulty controlling content on mobile

The regulation of temporalities is linked to that of the location of devices, especially since mobile devices can be used in different rooms in the home. Here too, there are differences between families who authorize use in the bedroom, those who tolerate them for a given time and those who require the devices to be used from a common room.

Adolescents from working-class backgrounds have greater access to devices in their bedroom: the size of the home and the size of the siblings play a role in regulating access spaces, particularly when children share the same room. In advantaged families, the accessibility of devices from a shared space allows parents to practice discreet surveillance. Many of them also allow screens in rooms, favoring control of time over place.

The content consumed by teenagers (videos, series, video games) and that which they share on social networks are also regulated, not without difficulties. Authorized content is rather defined by default, by prohibitions. This general observation made from INEDUC data is found in more recent research on screen reading practices .

But when some parents forbid the viewing of content such as reality TV or series deemed violent on family television, it is difficult for them to control what their teenagers watch on mobile media. The bans are now more at the level of access, or not, to certain social networks (Snapchat, Tik Tok, for example) more associated by parents with potential dangers in terms of content.

Furthermore, while cyberharassment and shocking or pornographic content worry parents from all social backgrounds, regulation strategies also involve supportive speeches and discussions.

Author Bios: Barbara Fontar is a Lecturer in Educational Sciences, Mickaël Le Mentec is a Lecturer in Education and Training Sciences voth at Rennes 2 University and Agnès Grimault-Leprince is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Western Brittany