Recently, i experienced three things that have had a profound effect on me and are the inspiration for my column this month: I read Jo Ann Sales’ book Secret Lives of American Teenagers, I attended a talk given by Common Sense Media about social media, and I finally broke down and watched the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Ironically and unplanned, these three things all happened in the past month, and each has left me with a lot to ponder as a parent. The topics and issues are overwhelming and frightening, but the common thread I kept coming back to was the need for parents to be informed and stay engaged.
Technology continues to change at rapid speed, so by the time we finally understand Facebook or Instagram those aren’t cool anymore, and everyone has moved on to Snapchat or the next coolest thing. With a daughter who is 11 and a son who is 9, we are just on the cusp of some of these issues, but I am a firm believer it is never too early to get ahead of the game. Here are a few of my tips for parents trying to navigate these unchartered waters.
This dialogue can begin as soon as your kids show an interest in the technology, which, if yours are like mine, that was preschool. Even at this young age, you can begin to show them what apps or games are O.K. to play, and always disable the browser on their devices. If they need it to play a game, then make sure you have set up the privacy settings and parental controls. YouTube is the perfect example — if you search for Mickey Mouse, you get way more than the cute little Disney character.
Common Sense Media believes that the earlier we start talking to our kids about this and slowly introducing them to the technology, the more ability they will have to self-regulate down the road.
SET LIMITS THEN REINFORCE VALUES AND EXPECTATIONS
Another part of having an open dialogue is talking about the rules and expectations around devices, screen time, and social media. The more your children understand in the beginning, the greater the chance they will respect your expectations. One of the best ways I have seen to do this is to make a family media contract that everyone signs and must adhere to. Common Sense Media has a great agreement that can also be used for talking points for family discussions. For younger children, the agreement deals with issues such as passwords, privacy, and safety. For older children, it focuses on not using devices to bully or be inappropriate and agreeing not to set up fake accounts on social media.
These agreements are starting points and can be customized to each individual family’s values and expectations. In our house, we added items such as no devices during the week unless homework-related, and all devices come out of the bedroom at bedtime. We also agreed that whether it is an e-mail, text, or anything else in the digital world, if they wouldn’t feel comfortable telling a teacher or parent what they wrote, then it probably shouldn’t be said.
This is the third piece to the puzzle. Some parents call it spying, but really you are monitoring with only the best intentions of helping your children and trying to keep them safe. Common Sense Media recommends if your child is using a social media platform like Instagram or Snapchat, parents need to be on it also. Let your child know you will be checking the accounts regularly — not “liking” or commenting, but only checking to be sure there is nothing inappropriate or any red flags.
It is a hard but necessary lesson that our children must learn — digital footprints are forever, nothing really disappears. Right now, for our 11-year-old, I let her know I will regularly be checking her e-mail account and text messages. Common Sense Media also says that for kids, just knowing their parents are monitoring their profiles or devices drastically reduces the chances of anything inappropriate or negative being said.
Technology is such a powerful tool, and the Internet has opened a whole new world for our children. The earlier we can teach them how to navigate it safely and positively, the better it will be for them. As parents, we can’t expect to give this powerful tool to our children without any guidelines or instruction. As we all get busier and become ourselves more attached to our devices, we can’t forget the importance of taking the time to educate ourselves so we can then educate and model for our children the power of the Internet and all the good it can do when used appropriately.