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Every family is different when it comes to digital

Almudena Lara is one of the experts at Google focused on ensuring young people have more positive and safer experiences online. She shares her thoughts on how families can get the most out of a rapidly changing digital landscape.

Almudena Lara has an important job. As Google’s global lead on child safety policy, her remit covers everything from digital wellbeing, to giving families and young people more control over their digital presence, to ensuring children learn how to be informed and engaged online citizens.

She joined Google from the NSPCC, where she led their work to influence the debate on online safety and issues such as access to mental health care for children. She also led major programmes for improving outcomes for children at the UK Department for Education and worked at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, advising on issues from welfare reform to social investment and social action. 

Almudena’s experience of working with young people and families – as well as raising her own family – has made her very aware of the challenges modern parents face and has become critical to her work at Google.

What should parents consider when thinking about their children’s digital experiences?

It is important to remember that most children have very positive experiences online most of the time. Technology helps them to stay connected with loved ones, explore, learn and have fun. But it is normal for parents to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of digital options. It can be easy for us to feel like we’re not getting it right, or that we’re not striking the perfect balance between the online and offline world for our families. Every child and every family situation is different, and everyone uses technology differently – and that’s okay! However, there are a vast range of tools available for parents to help guide their children’s experience online – whether it’s the type of content they see on YouTube Kids or the amount of screen time on their phones. 

How do you find the right balance with screen time?

There is growing consensus that it’s about the quality of your time online, not the quantity. If a child is being creative, or doing their homework, or even just video calling their Granny, that’s good! But playing a football game online for hours instead of actually kicking a ball might not be the best idea. It’s a great idea to talk to your child about what they enjoy online and then set digital ground rules together – Google’s Family Link app lets parents set limits on their children’s devices, and then set a ‘digital bedtime’ for their device. 

What do you most enjoy about your job?

There’s nothing more exciting than creating new products that you know are genuinely going to impact on people’s lives. I spend a lot of time listening to what parents and children themselves actually want and need. A great example of this is YouTube Kids, which we built to give children a more contained environment that’s simple and fun to explore, and easy for parents and caregivers to guide their time online. But what we found was that older children – ‘tweens’, although I hate that word – wanted to explore the online world with more autonomy, and not be told they were a ‘kid’. Those children were also being encouraged by their teachers to go and look at videos about history, maths or literature on YouTube. To give families another option, we introduced supervised experiences on YouTube for parents who think their child is ready for a broader online video universe. Created with a Google Account managed by Family Link, this new experience comes with content settings, limited features, educational PSAs, and extra digital wellbeing protections for young people.We’ve also created a guide to help parents decide if a supervised experience makes sense for their child.  In this way children can exercise their autonomy, while families find the right balance for them online. 

What’s the next big challenge you’re thinking about?

I’ve been pleased to see a focus on Online Media Literacy among policymakers, particularly on how to empower citizens to make informed and safer choices online. For years Google has been investing in Be Internet Legends, a programme which has now reached over 70% of primary schools in the UK, which teaches children both the practical skills and crucially the behaviours involved in staying safer online. We run it with a fantastic organisation called Parent Zone, and the curriculum was drawn up in collaboration with the Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) Association. Thinking through how we teach our children to feel and behave when they see different kinds of content online – not oversharing, and being kind to others – is incredibly important.

Image courtesy of Google and Francis Augusto.

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