Keeping kids safe online is a two part process.
The first part is about us as parents. Kids can smell hypocrisy — especially teens. If we insist that our kids follow certain rules when they use technology and then announce that those same rules don’t apply to us as parents? Ouch. We’ve just lost a ton of parenting power.
Respect is given when respect is earned. That applies to parents too.
The second part is about kids. There are certainly a lot of resources that can help parents keep their kids safe online. And these may be genuinely useful. The problem is our kids don’t live in a bubble. At some point they need to understand HOW to navigate through the good and the bad of their virtual world.
The best way to teach them how? By modeling, communicating, and increasing online privileges as maturity is shown.
Every family is different — different kids, different ages, different needs for technology, different opinions on online risks. No matter where you fall on these issues, it would be wise to consider these 5 concepts.
1. Model wise technology use
I have to laugh at myself because sometimes I pick up my phone at the most ridiculous times. I’ll pull out my phone to keep myself “busy” during the two minutes it takes my child to brush their teeth at night. I’ve disappeared into the bathroom and re-emerged 32 minutes later because Facebook, for some reason, wouldn’t stop scrolling (and the dinner dishes still hadn’t been washed…..How much time do they need anyway?!).
There are so many excuses to pick up a device for absolutely no reason at all.
So what’s the big deal, you say?
Well, our words don’t mean a whole lot to our kids when our words and our actions are in conflict with each other. If we truly want to raise our kids to show self-control and maturity with their OWN online use, then WE have to model it as well.
We have to follow family rules. We need to admit when we mess up and misuse or abuse our technology privileges. Parents can teach their kids so much when they own up to personal mistakes and model the problem solving process and even live through the potential consequences.
Isn’t life all about becoming better people?
Go figure! Parenting is all about trying to guide our kids to become awesome people too!
Take a minute to think about your own technology use. How well do YOU model the following?
- How to disconnect from your device and reconnect with the people around you.
- How to show self control through time management and work ethic while ON your device (stop the online distractions!).
- How the virtual world, however exciting, cannot take the place of true happiness and enjoyment that comes in the real world, doing real things, with real people, that live in real communities.
- How to limit your device use to balance your physical, mental, emotional, and social health.
- How to reject the false guise of anonymity and always communicate online as respectfully as you would in person.
- How to differentiate worthwhile, high quality content from sensationalized information or gossip.
- How to use technology to increase your quality of life instead of just entertain yourself.
- How to identify online threats like identity theft, sexual predators, scams, inappropriate content — and how you navigate away from those risky situations.
2. Be familiar with the online platforms your kids use
One of the best ways to keep an eye on your child’s online activity is by being familiar with the platforms your child uses. Take the time to explore popular sites WITH your kids, especially when they’re younger.
What’s that you say?
You don’t want to give up that “me time” while a device babysits your kids? Honestly, sometimes I don’t either.
But think of it this way. It’s another way to connect with your kids doing something they already love to do. Geek out with your kids over their favorite movie, personality or brand. Watch the YouTube channels together that they think are hilarious. Just hang out in their zone for a little while and observe how they act when online, where they go, and what they say. Most teens will tell you a lot just by being interested and letting them lead the conversation and online time.
And you just gained a ton of information about your kid’s online behaviors, good and bad. This will help you decide their maturity level online and when privileges can be earned.
Be firm about what sites your kids are NOT allowed to use no matter how many other kids use them. I know this can be tough when your kid feels left out of the group. But honestly, learning how to cope with disappointment is healthy; being exposed to something disturbing, vulgar, dirty or harmful is the opposite of healthy. So stand firm.
3. Establish family rules
Every family should have rules to help teach device responsibility and to keep kids safe online. Some rules will be family rules that all household members follow (that includes you!). Other rules will be rules until your child has shown enough responsibility and maturity to have earned more online privileges.
Rules definitely don’t take the place of regular and open communication with kids. Young teens especially are eager to show their maturity. And they’re also surprisingly great at following rules when they are a part of the creation process. So ask for their input. Also ask them what they think they need to demonstrate to you to earn more online privileges. They often come up with reasonable recommendations and requests.
As you talk about your family rules, here are some things to consider:
- Are devices used only in shared family spaces?
- When can devices be used for entertainment and for how long?
- When will family members disconnect from devices and reconnect with the people around them each day? Around the dinner table, before bed, when walking to school, or when entertaining visitors?
- Will parents have password access to all devices, platforms and logins?
- Will the App Store be locked?
- Do new sites need to be parent approved?
- Is it ok to put personal information online?
- What should kids do when (not if!) they see hateful or harmful messages, or bullying behavior either to themselves or to others?
- What should kids do when (not if!) they come across inappropriate content like pornography or other sexually suggestive, filthy, or vulgar content?
- Are there consequences for not following these family rules?
4. Think carefully before giving a child a device of their own
Many kids want their own device, especially as they get older. I can’t blame them; I love having my phone. I also know how hard it is to listen to the begging and whining and endless pestering of a child in dire need of their own device.
But listen up.
Statistics show that 27% of teenagers have received an explicit sexual image, 11% have been threatened with harm both online and by phone, 28% have been victims of cyberbullying, while 16% admit to being a bully online. And the average age of first exposure to pornography? It’s 12 years old.
The online world is awesome — except for when it’s not.
This garbage is what you’re handing your kid when you hand over a personal device.
So the question is, can THEY handle this? Have they shown self-control, responsibility and maturity while online? Do they understand these risks and do they know how to navigate away from them?
Do YOU trust that your teen would act in a wise way? Do you talk about these issues often and check in with them?
Kids and teens have plenty of challenges in the real world. Are they ready to tackle these issues in a virtual world too? It’s a decision worth looking at carefully.
5. Teach kids to be wise about the powers of the internet
The internet is powerful. It has allowed so much good to happen in the world — relief when disasters strike, voices that can propel change, information that enlightens and uplifts. It is truly an amazing tool.
That’s why we have to teach our kids to respect the power of the internet, of amplified voices, of neverending content, of creativity, organization, and movement.
With this power comes an understanding of values and limits that should dictate our behavior. What values and limits are important to you? What do your kids need to know?
Here’s some food for thought:
- People like to hide behind anonymity. It’s so easy to be rude, mean, threatening, and violent when you think no one will ever know it’s you. The problem is you know it’s you. And you’re better than that. Never say online what you would not be able to say to another person’s face.
- Just because it’s online does not mean it is true. It is really easy for people to spread false and misleading information online at lightning speed. Always have a healthy amount of skepticism and know how to determine what sites and information are valid.
- The internet can amplify your voice for good or for bad. Be aware of the messages you’re adding and decide if they make you, your family, your friends, your community, your country, or your world more awesome.
- Most of your online friends couldn’t care less about hearing everything that happens in your life. Be selective about how often you share personal information online.
- Realize that anything shared online — words, images, videos — can come back to haunt you. People in the real world have to maintain their competence professionally and hold down jobs. Don’t risk your future by being dumb online.
- Real communication within a relationship happens face to face or over the phone. Don’t let texts, posts, emails, or chatting take the place of healthy, real communication between people.