How free-range parenting works (and doesn't) in the online world

Sure you can trust your child. But can you trust the internet?

Georgie’s parents trusted their 12-year-old implicitly. They had always seen themselves as free-range parents, allowing her plenty of freedom to develop her own interests and discover her own boundaries.

And the proof was in the proverbial pudding. Their daughter was responsible, mature and creative. Her friends were lovely, and her school performance consistently pleasing. 

So when they decided Georgie was ready for her first phone, they didn’t overthink it. She simply wasn’t the kind of kid who’d ever been vulnerable to the standard “online risks” parents read about.

A talented netball player, she had a healthy body image and was as far from a bully as anyone could imagine. She played games online now and then, but never to excess. Her idea of a Netflix binge was watching three episodes in a row of “The Worst Witch.” 

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Their trust in Georgie’s honesty and commonsense was rock-solid. And it was based on evidence. Years and years of it. It was absurd to think that a phone could change all that. 

That’s why they had no qualms about simply handing her a phone and tell her, “Enjoy using this. We trust you to do the right thing online, as you’ve always done offline.” And that was that.

Initially, they didn’t even ask Georgie to tell them her phone number. It just seemed like an invasion of privacy, her mum later recalled. They certainly didn’t ask for her password. In fact, it never even occurred to them.

They had no qualms about simply handing her a phone and tell her, “Enjoy using this. We trust you to do the right thing online, as you’ve always done offline.”

True to their free-range philosophy, Georgie’s parents placed no restrictions on when and where or how she could use her new device. 

Typical tween? 

And all was well for the first few weeks. Sure, her screen-time was ratcheting up - but they chalked that up to a digital “honeymoon period” they were certain she’d outgrow. It wasn’t til she started sleeping through her alarm on school mornings that they noticed any real change in her behaviour.

“Adolescence!” they agreed. And when she started coming home from school and heading straight to her bedroom, without even a perfunctory “Hi mum!”, they just rolled their eyes. This is what almost-teens did, right? They’d heard all about that. 

Getting Georgie to stick around long enough for a conversation over the family dinner table was also becoming a struggle. When they tentatively suggested she leave her phone in her bedroom at mealtimes, she ate so fast they worried for her digestive health.

What Georgie’s mum and dad didn’t worry about was her online safety. 

It wasn’t until a shock parent-teacher conference convinced them to look more closely at her online life that they realised the truth: that in the few short months since she’d gone free-range with her new phone, Georgie had started her own YouTube channel (where she was sometimes viciously trolled), and was routinely spending her nights scrolling TikTok, roaming around Roblox - where, among other pastimes, she enjoyed attending virtual funerals - and chatting to strangers on self-harm message boards. 

The behaviour that her mum and dad had chalked up to “teen girl” was - to a large extent - the fallout from an online life that had spiralled out of control. 

Georgie’s name and some identifying details have been changed to protect the family’s privacy. But her story is real.

The takeaways: 

  • In a digital world, all parents need to re-evaluate what it means to “trust” a child. You trust them - but do you trust the other 3.5 billion strangers who are online? 
  • Kids who are at real risk for online abuse, including serious mental health issues, may look like they are simply displaying “typical teen behaviour.” There is nothing normal and benign about a child who doesn’t sleep at night, doesn’t converse with family members, and can’t sit still for family meals.
  • “Free-range” parenting that allows kids the autonomy to make their own way (and figure out their own mistakes) may work beautifully in the offline world. But in the online world, all children - no matter how trustworthy - need firm boundaries, active mentoring, and regular, ongoing conversations



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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, online safety, free-range parenting

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