There is really no escaping it—the internet and online devices are a part of all of our lives (kids too!). Schools require that students work on computers and assign homework that depends on being connected. Then, of course, there’s the lure of social networking and online gaming. If your home is like mine, you know all too well the constant vigilance needed to keep online activities to a minimum. Going screen-free for at least one day of the week is a goal we strive (and often fail!) to achieve. As with anything worth doing—it takes work to learn how to best navigate the digital age with your kids. The goal is to teach kids to self-moderate so that they can use devices but not have them take over their world. And the key way to successfully approach this task is to position it as a partnership.
Online access comes with a number of risks such as inappropriate content, cyberbullying, online predators, and fraud and identity theft. The other big concern for parents is how all this screen time affects a developing brain.
For starters, parents need to be aware of what kids are seeing and doing. That means put the device in the family room and ask questions. Be nosy; it’s your job as a parent. (This is easier to do for younger kids.)
Internet Safety Laws
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) helps protect kids when they are online. Its purpose is to keep anyone from getting a child’s personal info without a parent’s consent. So websites must obtain parental consent before using any child’s personal information such as name, address, etc.
Online Protection Tools
There are ways to take control of your kids’ access to adult material. Many internet service providers (ISPs) offer parent-control options. Google SafeSearch can limit your kids’ searches to block explicit sites, videos, and images. Software is available that helps block sites and restricts personal information being shared online and monitor and track activity—such Qustodio or NetNanny. For teen oversight, you can check out the apps Bark or KidBridge, which monitor texts, social networks, and other mobile functions. Online resource Tech Radar pulls together a review of the best parental control software now available.
Explain to your kids that they should never share personal information such as their address, phone number, and school name. Help them keep their images off the internet. Teach them to use screen names and how to keep passwords safe. Let them know to alert you immediately if someone is asking to meet them in real life (IRL), or if someone is saying something threatening or mean to them. (Also it is a good idea to be up-to-date on some of the internet kid lingo, so that you can decipher what they are saying/texting.)
Create an Internet Contract
Put down in writing the general rules and have your child sign it. For instance, your contract might say that two hours a day of screen time is allowed, Sundays are screen-free days, and a timer must be used. (My family uses a timer and finds it very empowering for our child. She controls when the hours are used and understands that screens go off once the time is up.) Common Sense Media has a terrific Family Media Contract that you can use. In addition, the site has specific guides for parents with regards to Fortnite, YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok, Roblox, Parental Controls, etc.
Explain Source Material
I hear this one a lot, “but I read it online.” In this day and age, it is important for kids to understand that not all the information they find online is valid. Show them trusted sites for information and how to compare information on a topic—so that they can understand how much information can vary on one topic.
Check your credit card and phone bills for unfamiliar charges. Teach your kids to pass on any message that tries to upsell them. Make sure you don’t have credit card info stored on their devices.
This is easier to keep to a minimum when the kiddos are small. And understand there is a difference between passive screen time (staring at a movie), active screen time (gaming, using apps) and constructive screen time (coding, designing websites, etc.) Have a discussion with your kids about the differences and determine the right amount of time for your child. (The American Academy of Pediatrics has strict screen time limits that may not be realistic for your family.) And be aware that kids are watching what you do on screen time. So engage with them, limit your own screen use, and aim to develop family time specifically with no screens!
Take a Break
Even if you determine a specific amount of screen time is OK, encourage breaks. Staring at a screen may be detrimental for eyesight and posture; build in required stretch/workout breaks. This rings true for all of us—especially those of us stuck behind a computer for most of the day at work. Not only do breaks deter physical ailments but they also benefit in terms of psychological well being.
Know the Warning Signs
A child being targeted by an online predator may spend long hours online (especially at night), receive phone calls and messages from people you don’t know, and turn off the computer as soon as you get near it. Be aware and alert!
For the teens, it gets a little trickier. You can’t always see what they are seeing, or be around them when they are on devices. Therefore, open communication with your teen is vital. Have discussions about online predators, the dangers of interacting with strangers online, and why sexting isn’t OK. Explain the complexity of identity theft and why they need to take precautions to prevent this huge nightmare.
Longevity of Posts
Explain to your kids the potential issues surrounding posts and how a “digital footprint” remains far into the future. Things they say or feel (especially negative things) will be left online for anyone to see. And that may have very unwelcome results far down the line (like when they are applying for college or a job).
Stay Current on Online Issues
I know it’s difficult—problems and issues arise constantly. But it is important to pay attention. For instance, it recently has been revealed that FaceApp (a fun way to age yourself online) gives away your privacy in terms of images, voices, and even your videos. And Facebook’s Messenger Kids has also been shown to have a permission problem—a bug that could allow strangers to interact with kids (specifically not what the app was supposed to do).
Power Down at Night
The nighttime glare of online devices has been shown to impair proper sleep. And I know you’ve probably had arguments when kids try to sneak in extra nighttime usage. Need a solution? Here’s the plan. Take all devices away (yours too) at an appointed time in the early evening and power them off. During the school year, make sure kids know that homework needs to be done by a certain time.
So here’s the takeaway, the internet has brought many exciting, educational, and downright fun ideas and images into all our lives. And kids today are growing up with this digital aspect of their lives, no getting around it. But take care in how you incorporate and guide your kids through the tangled web. And talk with them about your concerns and dangers so that they can understand why you are putting certain limitations in place.