I’m showing my age here, but I didn’t have internet access until college. I got my first cell phone towards the end of my senior year, and I had the ability to slowly learn to use technology as the world began incorporating the internet into daily working and home life.
Contrast that with many of our children who never lived in a world without Facebook, cell phones, home computers, or even classroom computers, for that matter.
A trip to the grocery store is a quick way to see just how much a part of daily life screen time and the internet have become – even for little ones. I always see at least several shopping carts that contain a pint-sized person watching their favorite show or playing their favorite app.
I’ve long been a black and white thinker, and I had to train myself to see the gray. While my thinking often jumps to all or nothing, that is rarely the healthiest solution – for anything. I’ve come to accept that the internet, and all things screen, follow the same pattern.
While my Mama Bear-self wants to load my kids up into an RV and raise them in the woods somewhere – where they’ll never accidentally come across porn, be contacted by a groomer or be exposed to social media bullying – at some point my kids would grow up, leave the woods and quite possibly try to ingest all that I had kept them from in one long bender.
(Not to mention, I seriously like my friends, I can’t seem to break up with Target and I wouldn’t do well with shooing bugs out of my bed before going to sleep.)
If “nothing” isn’t the answer, then “all” isn’t either. There are incredible things that kids can do with access to the internet.
At my children’s school they make powerful presentations, with pictures that they source themselves online. They use Google Earth to look at the topography in different countries and they visit museums without ever leaving the classroom. That is the internet at its best – a tool to enrich our children’s knowledge and to boost the level and impact of well-planned lessons.
But the internet is not without its downsides. And the downsides can be extremely steep.
I have been a very close witness to a child entering into a “friendship” with a 14-year-old boy, who turned out to be an adult male.
I know of a 6-year-old who accidentally connected to porn through Siri.
And now goes to regular counseling because he just couldn’t stop himself from visiting sites once he was first exposed – and it took his parents a long time to realize what was going on. We can probably all think of a magazine we saw when we were young, a picture maybe we weren’t supposed to look at – but the difference is that those pictures didn’t move. They were static. They didn’t expose us to so much more than we were developmentally able to handle.
So, without panicking and moving back into “nothing” mode, how does a parent responsibly raise a child in the age of the internet? This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a very good starting point:
- When kids are young, use screens as tools, not toys. If they don’t build their imagination muscles, they’ll be the kids with their faces buried in their screens from the bus stop to the bed. You want them to be able to step away sometimes for their own mental health.
- Research and incorporate filtering software into both your child’s devices and your home network. Ask your child’s school administrator or technology staff member how the school is keeping children safe online.
- Create a technology contract. Talk as a family to decide together what good rules look like. If your child has a hand in setting the rules, he is more likely to adhere to them.
- Use an app on your device that lets you see what your child is viewing on her device, including the texts that she is sending. An issue of safety trumps privacy.
- Be honest with your child. Explain to him why you are handling things the way you are and walk him through the consequences of bullying online, sending pictures, viewing too much social media, sharing personal information with strangers and more.
- Keep screens out of the bedroom. All screens. This means teenager’s phones at nighttime, too. Have a dedicated study space in the living room or other visible area if the internet is to be used.
- Set limits. You get to decide what’s best for your child, not your child. Does that mean screen time only on the weekends? Does that mean every day, but only for a set amount of time? Does that mean only until 8 p.m.? Confidently set your limits and follow through on them.
- Take an interest in what your child enjoys, so that it doesn’t seem like it is you against all technology.
- Keep the lines of communication open. Don’t get angry if your child messes up online. Express your disappointment, but talk through how to handle things together. If you want them to come to you should they ever mess up big-time online, show them that you can be trusted to guide and teach, not only punish.
It’s up to us to teach our children to be safe and responsible online.
It’s a daunting task when they are so much innately better at technology than we are, and when they can crowd-source work arounds in the time it takes us to blink, but it’s an important task to keep tackling.
At the end of the day, the best thing we can do is keep talking to them about our thoughts and hopes for them around the internet and technology.
If we can keep the lines of communication open, we’ve won half of the battle.