Opinion: using policy to support parents during COVID-19 and beyond


In a recently released COVID-19 Roadmap to Recovery from Australia’s Go8 universities, positive parenting was recognised as ‘the clean water of child mental health’, with support for parents noted as ‘potentially the best, and most evidence-based’ way to maximise the health and wellbeing of children – both now and as a preventive measure into the future. The roadmap also recognised that Australia leads the world in the development and dissemination of parenting support strategies, and that many can be equally effective when delivered digitally.

Digital interventions can also be delivered at scale at significantly reduced cost when compared to in-person support. With this in mind, it is worth policymakers giving serious consideration to investments in tech-assisted parenting support as we move into a recovery phase.

In 2016, the Parenting Research Centre conducted a rapid evidence review in to understand what the research said about technology-assisted support for parents. We looked at programs aiming to improve parenting skills, change parent behaviour, and to improve parent and child outcomes.

Although the technology used to deliver parenting support is constantly changing and improving, there are a few general principles that can inform future policy direction.

1. Tailored design and evaluation are key

The evidence indicates that nearly all information technology modes work for some populations and some outcomes. Simple approaches appear to work well for simple outcomes (eg. text messages for reminders and prompts) but complex behavioural change is unlikely from a light touch approach such as text messaging. The review also indicated that information technology interventions (to date) were more effective at changing attitudes and intentions than at changing behaviour — that difficult final step.

Our most important finding may be that the effectiveness of tech-assisted interventions is wholly dependent on the effectiveness of the underlying approach. In cases where research compared an evidence-based intervention delivered face-to-face to one delivered online we found the online version performed similarly — but if the intervention isn’t effective in person, putting it online won’t make it more effective.

This means that evaluating the effectiveness and impact of all support initiatives will be the surest guarantee of making a positive difference for parents.

2. Build in elements of interactivity wherever possible

Evidence indicates that support works best when it is interactive, but the technology component doesn’t have to be complex or intensive. Interactive text messaging can fill service gaps in areas with poor access to services, and interactive websites are better at changing knowledge and attitudes than are static, information-only sites.

While delivering online programs worked best with personalised feedback from a therapist or coach in some cases, many interventions were successfully delivered entirely independent of live feedback. If personalised feedback is used, practitioners don’t need to respond in real time and can make some use of pre-prepared responses, meaning that online therapy is less resource-intensive than face-to-face therapy. It can also be offered to more participants, and to participants who cannot or prefer not to attend agencies.

3. Factor in barriers to access and strategies to mitigate this

The success of digital solutions for parenting support will depend on parents’ ability to access them. Computers and reliable internet connections may need to be provided by educators and welfare agencies, and parents may need to work around other demands on the bandwidth of their connections.

Barriers to access might be more basic: mobile phone ownership may be lower in some remote Australian communities, or mobile phone coverage may be patchy. While phones can be provided, it might not be possible to improve reception.

These are challenging times, but they also offer an opportunity to deliver support in new ways and may well help establish foundations that allow greater flexibility and access for parents once the current situation passes.

With pressure on families mounting during this period – whether this be due to isolation, increased caring responsibilities, financial stress or myriad other factors – supporting all parents well is essential for helping children and families to emerge from this historic period with the resilience and skills to build a stronger tomorrow.

Warren Cann is CEO of the Parenting Research Centre, and Gina-Maree Sartore, PhD, is a senior research specialist at the Parenting Research Centre.

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