If you search ‘how to protect your child online’, you’ll most likely become overwhelmed with a flood of information. In one corner is the fear monger, spewing forth all the rancid possibilities and imminent demise of your child once they connect to the internet. In the other corner are the shouts for ‘privacy!’ and how you have no right to access your child’s on-line life. In between are a thousand different and valid arguments purporting just as many strategies and viewpoints.
Control Can’t Control
If your goal is to control your child’s on-line behavior or access, then I’m afraid to say you’re doomed. In the mid-90’s you might have pulled this off on your dial-up modem (but honestly, probably not). Today, however, there is limitless access, including means of connecting you’ve probably never heard of. Thus, your goal cannot succeed if it is to investigate every nook and cranny of your child’s on-line life. Be fair warned however, there are many companies that promise their product will help you to follow and know your child’s every digital move, and their promise is enticing. The reality is that they’ll find a way around any app or filter you covertly put on their device. This approach of control and conquer usually ends with resentment, typically because the child feels unknowingly spied on and the parent feels betrayed by their child’s hidden behavior.
Free Roaming Fails
On the other hand, if your goal is to let your child roam freely, finding out on their own the dangers and privileges of an on-line life, I’m afraid to say there is a great possibility of harm lurking ahead. I’m not one to shout the assured apocalypse if your kid has free reign on-line. They may make it out just fine. As one who grew up in the beginning of on-line access, where parents weren’t yet aware of the dangers of the cyber world, I can assure you that free access will most likely leave an enduring mark, most likely a wound. For my generation, it seems that the dangers of the internet were similar to the dangers of cigarettes in their early days, everyone knew they probably weren’t good for you but no one knew (or wanted to acknowledge) just how deadly they really were. It is because of the vast multitude of potential harms that I believe giving your child unlimited access and a total on-line independence may not fare them well either.
I am proposing what I call a knowing awareness, rather than investigative control or out-of-sight out-of-mind free reign. What I mean is this, your child needs a guide through their on-line life just the same (or possibly more) than they need a guide in real life. Unfortunately, because the cyber world is detached from reality many adolescents cannot perceive the possible ramifications of their on-line use and misuse. Add to this the fact that they literally cannot perceive these future possibilities because their brains have not fully developed the ability to think ahead long-term. They need a guide on-line just as they need a driving instructor, math teacher, band director or athletic coach. Who would ever send their 13 year old son into the 4th quarter of the Sr. High State Championship without first helping him develop the proper technique and understanding of the game, as well as enlisting him in age appropriate sports? Nor would anyone in their right mind give their 11 year old daughter the keys to the family car before patiently instructing her on the use of the gas and brake, turn signals and hazard lights, and a working knowledge of the rules and dangers of the road.
Yet we do this all the time when we hand our kids our phones, laptops, remotes and tablets. Even with the best training kids will still have wrecks, get injured in the game, or miss a few questions on their final exam. This is where knowing awareness comes in. One talk about on-line use is not enough. What your kid needs is an on-going conversation, in much the same way as they need repetition in their academic and athletic training. Not to derail this subject, but this applies to ‘the sex-talk’ as well. Make it an on-going, continual conversation.
Make Your Plan Clearly Known
Seek to be aware of your child’s on-line life. There are many great tools which can help in this. Some send you every detail of their use, while some only send you the red flags. However, the greatest tool for protecting your child on-line is your child. Figure out your standards and boundaries and then make them clear, maybe even written down. As in football, the rules and safe practices are clearly learned before the athlete puts on their pads and takes the field, and also in driving the rules and healthy behaviors are learned and practiced well before you get on the freeway. Help your child learn the boundaries and then guide them through implementation.
Whether you choose to lean towards details or general knowledge, let your child know your plan and that it is for their good that you are paying attention. Remember the old saying, ‘Rules without relationship equal rebellion’. I’m not saying this is easy, but I am saying it’s worth it. Ask the hard questions (even the ones you don’t know the answer to), download the best apps and filters, and seek to be aware of what’s out there. For more information on the basics of monitoring, here’s a helpful link. This type of knowing awareness can only take place in a safe and trusting relationship. You must demonstrate to your child repeatedly that they can trust you because you are for their good, even if at the time it feels like the world is coming to an end because they are experiencing healthy consequences and clear boundaries.
6 Tips for Fostering Knowing Awareness:
1. Be curious – Curiosity does not entail interrogation. Get to know your kid, how they think about their on-line world and what they want out of it. Remember, understanding does not necessarily equal agreement. It’s actually possible to understand and validate their viewpoint and still disagree, but in doing so there is a respectful relationship which fosters dialogue and obedience.
2. Be humble – The reality is your child is most likely more tech savvy than you are. They are already clear on this. Try not to put up a false sense of superiority to gain their respect, unless you want to lose it. A humble approach of curiosity will gain you more respect and more access to what they’re actually up to on-line anyway.
3. Be consistent – As you work to find a healthy standard of on-line practices, hold true to it. If something comes up that you weren’t expecting, negotiate new terms for it rather than laying down an on the spot, unknown rule. The beauty of technology is that it develops along with our imagination, which is seemingly endless. New things will arise so you will need a place to develop new boundaries. Above all, try to make clear and definable boundaries and consequences which are as balanced as possible (punishment fits the crime).
4. Be honest – The greatest thing I was ever given by my parents was honesty about their own mistakes. Wisdom, after all, is the ability to learn from others. Those things I did not struggle with were those things I heard about in honest conversations with them. You may not have a lot of experience on-line, but I’m positive you went through similar struggles, emotions and hurts when you were their age. Let them know. Believe it or not, if you come to them humbly they are actually glad to hear about what life was like for you and to know they are not alone.
5. Be aware – Read up on what’s happening in social media, and then read again next month when it changes. You may never fully understand it, after all who can, but you can be aware. This awareness will lend itself to honest and fruitful conversations. It’s virtually impossible to have a productive conversation about something you know nothing about but fear greatly. If you don’t know, ask. Once again, humble curiosity. Awareness will also allow you to set boundaries which are age appropriate.
6. Be trustworthy – Just stating that they can ‘come to you with anything’ isn’t enough. You have to first demonstrate that they can actually come to you with anything. If they admit a mistake and you blow up at them and ground them for months, they hear loud and clear that they cannot come to you with ‘anything’ unless they want to be steamrolled. Rather, if they come to you with a mistake treat them like a junior apprentice, help them reflect and find meaning in their slip-up so they can have wisdom in the future.
Although your child’s life on-line can provoke fear, bewilderment and absolute frustration, it can actually be a gift. Giving your child your humble and curious awareness sends loud and clear the message that they are loved and valued, which no sound bite, video or digital message can drown out.
– Branden Henry
What kids are actually doing on-line: http://www.parenting.com/article/kids-social-networking
13 tips for monitoring on-line use: http://www.parenting.com/gallery/social-media-monitoring-kids
Detailed guide to on-line child safety: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/parent-guide
Age appropriate tips: http://www.microsoft.com/security/family-safety/childsafety-age.aspx
Why kids use social media: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-j-siegel-md/why-our-teenagers-feel-connect-on-social-media_b_4480817.html
Advice for parents about all forms of media: www.commonsensemedia.org