Digital Parenting: Is It Tougher When You're Older?

Possibly, but greater maturity also has its advantages.

By Jacqueline Emigh

Is it harder to be the parent of a "digital kid" if you're over 40? Some studies suggest that older parents approach tech quite differently than younger ones do. But being an older parent has both advantages and disadvantages. There's no reason you can't be a great mom or dad to a smartphone-toting kid, regardless of your age.

What the Experts Say

Academics have paid a lot of attention to the question of how people's age affects their use of (and attitude toward) tech. In 2007, the American Library Association (ALA) wrote that "people born after 1980 are very different from those of us who were born earlier," and that "there is some evidence that they actually think and process information differently as a result."

In reviewing earlier studies, Robin M. Roberts of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, noted several common threads, including the idea that members of a so-called "digital generation" are more tech savvy. "Digital natives grow-up with a computer mouse in their hand and learn to use and gain expertise with digital computing technologies with ease."

Beyond Alphabet Soup

If you're a 50-year-old parent now, you were about 41 when the iPhone was born. But if you're a 20-year-old parent, you were only 11 at the time.

A typical 20-year-old parent probably used a Mac or Windows PC with a mouse (or maybe a trackpad or trackball) back when they were young. But that's still very different from the touch-enabled "always on" connectivity that you and your children can get from one of today's smartphones.

If you've been using mobile devices most of your life, it may seem intuitive to put your iPhone on the living room rug and wait for your one-year-old child to start playing with it—although you may have to intervene if your toddler decides to play Drop and Pick Up over and over with your prized $600 device.

In contrast, if you're 50 now, you may find it difficult to identify with a teen whose world seems to revolve around a mobile gadget.

Disadvantage #1: You Grew Up Differently

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, most phones were landline devices, connected by a wire to the wall. A parent who was a doctor (or maybe a CEO) might have owned a pager, but those devices were rare.

At some point later, your parents may have plunked down a wad of cash on an early cell phone—a bulky clunky device without GUI, touchscreen, Internet access, or apps. You could use these old cell phones for voice calling only, and rate plans could be very pricey.

If you relied solely on a landline phone, you couldn't take it anywhere. And since many families didn't own an analog answering machine until some time in the mid-1980s, phone access to friends was hit or miss.

Today teenage kids can get phone calls and texts any time, anywhere, and know about them right away. They can connect instantly over social networks, too, and they never want to put their phones away.

Disadvantage #2: Computers Were Different

The first Apple II came out in 1976, and IBM didn't unveil the first DOS-based PC until 1981.

If you're an older parent today, you may have used either an Apple II or an early IBM PC at work—and maybe even at home—back in the day. But like early cell phones, these early PCs were bulky, hard to use, and expensive.

Older parents grew up with very different technology and used it in very different ways than their kids do. But that's not necessarily a bad thing:

Advantage #1: You Might Really Be More Tech Savvy

If you're an older parent, you may have used a Mac (first released in 1984) or one of the first editions of Microsoft Windows from the 1980s and 1990s.

And if you ever dealt with the cumbersome command line interface of a DOS machine, or the sudden crash of Windows 3.0—well, you might be more tech savvy than a typical Gen Y-er.

So if you're a Generation X parent or even a Baby Boomer grandparent, an iPad Mini or a Samsung Galaxy 7 phone should be a piece of cake for you.

Advantage #2: You Appreciate Newer Tech

Consider the example of photography. As an older parent, you probably grew up taking pictures on film cameras. First you had to buy the right kind of film for your particular camera. Then, after shooting a few rolls, you'd take the film to a local pharmacy, which would send it out for processing. About a week later, you'd get back a packet of prints for each roll of film—and only then would you be able to tell whether the shots came out okay.

Many families got around these limits by buying a Polaroid "instant camera," the first of which arrived back in 1947. Using Polaroid film, you could watch the photo develop before your eyes, in a matter of minutes.

Unfortunately, that technology didn't allow for easy photo duplication or sharing. It was a far cry from today's smartphones, which come with integrated cameras and built-in connectivity for sending photos instantly through SMS, email, or social networks like Facebook and Instagram.

So chances are, you're probably quite aware of the huge improvements in photography in the last 15 years and you're thrilled that you and your kids can share photos so promptly. A younger parent might take smartphone-enabled digital photography for granted.

Advantage #3: You Might Have More Money

It's important not to generalize too much, but older parents are more likely to be financially secure, since they've had longer to establish themselves in their careers.

If you do have extra money available for discretionary spending, you can invest it in the latest and greatest tech for your family.

Advantage #4: Your Kids Might Be Better Educated

A 2016 study in Sweden found that kids born to moms who were 35 or older turned out to be better educated as adults. This study didn't mention tech at all, instead mainly pointing out that many Swedish women were postponing childbearing while (perhaps) they completed their own educations, pursued career opportunities, and improved their financial circumstances.

The conclusion? If you've already reached some of your own career goals, you may have more time and energy available to devote to you kids' learning experiences, whether they be in tech, music, travel, or something else.