Online safety for kids is a tough topic in our house. With four laptops, a desktop, and that new frontier where everyone has a handheld device, we are constantly navigating how to raise young adults who can actually communicate face to face, stay focused on the task at hand, and not turn to their online world before they engage in the world before their eyes. To know me is to know I’m an “in real life” kind of gal, happy to have a phone conversation or visit in person, often with a hug, and always with a genuine interest in actually be engaged face to face. I’m a communicator and while I love my work online, its events and in person team work that I love the most.
When Domain.Me asked me to join this campaign, I din’t think twice as we are truly in the hardest parenting season of our lives. Because our kids span middle school to college, our concerns about online safety for our kids at each stage are unique and the social and parenting mountains to scale seem monumental. Uncharted territory for all, this is a generation of children who are challenged to know how to truly hang out and make their own fun in the summer, to know how to be truly bored with nothing to do and survive that by turning to a book to get lost in or use their creative mind, to know how to go along for something as simple as daily errands without a device to distract them, to know how to pick up a phone and have an actual conversation with friends and family.
And all of this is learned behavior. Culturally. Generationally. And sadly inside the home. Parents have always and forever will be the gate keepers, value teachers, habit makers, and more. So this is an issue that is the ultimate do as I say and based on what we’ve seen change over the years, I’m not sure we doing such great job.
In our home, our parenting journey has been defined by learning by trial and error for our first and then do our best to apply what worked well as we bring along his siblings. While our 2nd child is close enough in age for this to be feasible, we’ve come to realize that the tsunami of digital influences that could consume our youngest child compared to our older children at the same age is a societal, generational force and not one we are in full agreement with. Which means in order to instill the values and character traits why want our children to aspire too, we’ll have to fight “But Mom everyone else is!” every step of the way. The good news is that’s nothing new.
Just to put the change in dynamic in perspective, when it was time for our oldest son to get a cell phone, there wasn’t even a consideration that texting might be part of the deal. It wast widely used, he wasn’t interested in it, and so it wasn’t an issue. But as we near that same milestone for our youngest, we have found that all of her friends, before even getting to middle school, now have either smartphones or other devices that enable them to text and go online at anytime. Beyond technologically savvy, knowing how to access WiFi anywhere and everywhere they go, the scary part is they rarely understand the dangers of unsecured Wifi that isn’t password protected nor the risks in having device settings that share locations.
I was shocked to learn that as early as 4th grade, many of my daughter’s classmates had social apps like KIK and SnapChat on their phones and used them often, finding them fun. You can’t blame them. Having a group of classmates to chat with outside of school or share pictures with seems cool enough. But the stark reality is that these largely unmonitorable apps open the door for all kinds of social risks because kids don’t even realize exist. They have no idea that just because they are by themselves typing what they think, their words or actions are in no way private but also largely untraceable which presents an even greater danger.
We’ve heard painful story after story of kids “saying” things they’d never say in person to someone’s face, sharing pictures having no idea that they really can be saved and shared without your permission thanks to a quick screenshot, all the while parents completely unaware the app has even been downloaded. Because their online world isn’t tangible, children are missing the cause and effect of social interaction, not being able to see someone’s reaction to their words or understand the nuance in a facial expression. The risk of a generational weakness for social compassion and grace is one of our greatest concerns for our youngest child.
And then there are social networks. We waited until our oldest was 14 to give him access to Facebook. Even though the TOS said 13 we just felt it was a privilege better left of high school, giving him the change to mature and understand that whatever he says online is a true reflection of who he is and therefore we wanted to give him time to learn that self control. Our middle child had no interest in Facebook because Twittter had risen to the social network of choice. The parenting challenge here is that not only were the kids on Twitter, again hard to navigate because its so wide open, but high schools themselves have turned to Twitter to communication daily announcements, sports updates, even teachers using Twitter for assignments. We’ve found ourselves in the office more than once asking why a teacher would use a social network like Twitter for updates when Blackboard and so many other school sanctioned websites exists. Apparently this is a site based decision and one we don’t support.
However for our daughter, its all about the pictures. And this is one of the biggest bees in my bonnet. To the parents of what seems like very single “younger than 13” child that has an Instagram account, justifying breaking the “Terms of Services” that clearly dictate users need to be 13, doesn’t fly. It simply doesn’t. When asked why, you’ll hear over and over again, “Its okay, we’re checking it and she/he is definitely more mature.” But here’s what you are doing to the rest of us. Right out of the box, children are begin taught that the rules don’t apply. Reread that. “My parents got me an Instagram account even though I’m not old enough. Its okay. The rules don’t apply to me.” And in the most visible way, the social dominos begin to fly. On Monday morning everyone is talking about those pictures on Instagram that not everyone can see. Or for those who do see they get an “in your face” image of the party they didn’t get an invite too. At our children’s most vulnerable age for learning social dynamics, the bar just went up for the hardest lessons to be learned. And because we all have to be part of this crazy technological world, we are left to navigate each other’s parenting choices more visibly, and painfully, than ever before.
And that’s the thing that makes everyone the most uncomfortable. This all boils down to parenting. And self control. Kids don’t have handheld devices or online access at home unless it’s given to them. And we can’t live in a technologically driven world and expect them not to be online. But you better bet that as your child’s parent, you have the ultimate responsibility to be actively involved in shaping your kids’ online values and skills and it starts with you being willing to do the hard work every single day to make that happen. Here are a few things we do that you might consider:
- Do you have a contract that outlines “If…then” so that your kids know what they can and can’t do and what happens when there are “learning opportunities” for redirection ~ translation “Busted, now what?”
- Do you know what apps are on your kid’s phone and which friends they are texting with ~ not just by name but actually know the kids and parents?
- Do you monitor your kids phone…every…single…day…from apps newly downloaded to deleted to new friends found in text?
- Do you randomly check your child’s cell phone to see how she/he is communicating as well as the communication of others?
- And most importantly, do you TALK to your kids about all of this? Every single step, letting them know taht YES you trust them but its a partnership where they are learning how to navigate the world and you do it together so they can be safe. That you are holding hands crossing the street and as they grow eventually they’ll be crossing on their own. You do it together so that they know that your job is to protect them and that as they learn the ropes they’ll be given more freedom. You do it together so that they understand its not them you are concerned about but the choices friends or strangers may make that could endanger them. You do it together so that they will trust you enough to come with you with an online bullying or mental health issue that needs adult intervention that could perhaps save a life. You do it together because YOU are the parent and its your job to guide.
If you don’t know where to start this conversation, I love this list of Internet Safety Tips for Kids and Teens from the National Chidren’s Advocacy Center. And if you need support on following the age restrictions for social networks, this is another great read from Common Sense Media that gives you every answer you’ll need to have. And finally, know your rights. The Children’s Privacy Protection Act is as important for you know know as your child.
Online safety for our kids is an ongoing conversion in our home that we simply can’t afford not to have. I know so many in this space think I’m old school, too strict, unrealistic ~ and I’m good with that. Because I’ve got one shot with my kids and that matters more to me than anyone’s opinion. Its hard and believe me, I struggle mightily with the conflict when my very passionate kids want their way. But if I want to get it right, I’ve got to honor our values as a family no matter what society throughs our way. No one said it would be easy, but it doesn’t have to be done alone. I’m hopeful that the partnership with our kids that this parenting stage requires to be successful lays a wonderful foundation for our relationships with them as grown adults. One can certainly hope.
Tell me…what is your greatest online safety concern for your kids?
Thanks so much for stopping by ~ see you next time!
Disclosure: This post was inspired and sponsored by Domain.ME the provider of the personal URLs that end in .ME. As a company, they aim to promote thought leadership to the tech world.