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Tech Shock: Olaf Kapella on how families use tech

In this week’s episode of the Tech Shock podcast, Vicki and Geraldine spoke to Olaf Kapella, senior researcher at the University of Vienna’s Austrian Institute for Family Studies, who has been working on an EU research project looking at how families use tech across different countries and how that influences children’s lives. 

Typology of families

We know that each family is different and that their attitudes towards tech and parenting can vary enormously. 

Kapella argued however that families can broadly be broken down into three broad typologies in terms of how they use tech:

  1. Families that fully integrate tech into their lives and to some extent build their identity around tech. They are proud of their relationship with tech.

  2. Families who have a relaxed attitude to tech. They use it, but also have a good balance between online and offline activities.

  3. Families who are anxious or sceptical about introducing tech into their lives. 

Intergenerational tech attitudes

Kapella’s research found that children’s attitudes to tech are heavily influenced by the attitudes of their parents. 

“Parents are the central part of a child’s universe,” Kapella said.“Negative attitudes to tech were passed across generations.”

Older children felt an allegiance to their family’s way of managing tech and were able to compare that with other families. “Children of 8 or 10 [years old] are already starting to compare their rules, communication and integration of technology with other families and with peers,” he said. 

Different countries, different access points

Kapella’s research showed that people from different countries actually acquired information in quite different ways.

For example, parents in Nordic countries tended to rely on centralised information websites, whereas in Austria people tended to prefer to learn via conversations with their friends or their children’s teachers. But, he said, “no matter where you get the information, it still has to be translated into your family culture.”

Tech as a form of conflict

Although none of the children interviewed mentioned family conflict arising from their tech use, some parents did.

A certain amount of conflict is inevitable, but there are plenty of ways to mitigate this. One of the most important, according to Kapella, is to not to  focus on any one aspect of digital life.

“The danger is in trying to approach the rules and the discussion and the conflict of the family only through one factor like screen time,” he said. Developing a healthy conversation about digital technology means exploring lots of different issues and listening to your child’s opinions. 

“We still see a tendency that basic discussion is screen time, and less about… getting to know what your child is doing online,” he said. 

Avoiding tech as reward

Kapella argued that using tech as a reward is something parents should try to avoid. Using video games or phone use as a reward for good behaviour risks your child developing an unhealthy relationship with tech. 

“Introduce digital activities as easily as going for a walk,” recommended Kapella. The more this division between online and offline activities is reduced, the more natural and healthy your child’s relationship to tech is likely to be. 

“If we try to avoid digital technologies, I think we’re increasing the vulnerability of children because we don’t give them the chance to grow and mature,” he said.

Creating a family identity

The ways in which you bring tech into your family life form a part of your family identity. Having discussions around tech is important because it really allows families to bond, as they come up with attitudes and rules that work for everyone. 

“Digital technologies play an important role in ‘doing family’. The more we can encourage parents in digital technologies, the more we can build up a ‘We-ness’ in family and in family identity,” said Kapella.

It benefits children hugely to feel that they are co-creators of how their family uses tech, he said, adding that parents should try to “empower children in their own capability”.

Thinking about how to integrate tech into your family is always going to present challenges, but Kapella recommended listening to your instincts as a parent, empowering yourself as well as your children.

Listen to episode 6 of Tech Shock, season 2: "Olaf Kapella"

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