Parents, the Internet safety struggle is real – and even impacts celebrity parents. Last week at the BlogHer conference in New York City, Gwyneth Paltrow actually said something parents can relate to: “Obviously the Internet and Internet safety is a huge thing for any parent. It completely freaks me out.” She went on to discuss how she’s given both her 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son iPads, but won’t let her daughter have her own phone yet, despite the begging. Sound familiar? Presumably (like most parents), she isn’t aware that her digital native children have mostly likely downloaded all the crafty apps that allow their iPads to function like any smartphone with a little help from Wi-Fi functionality.
That’s how it goes with parenting kids in this digital-age, isn’t it? Just when we think we’re doing our due diligence (like not letting them have a phone until a certain age), they find a way to navigate technology and artfully circumvent our rules. No cell phone, Mom? Fine. Let me just download this free messaging app called Kik so I can use this iPad’s Wi-Fi to text, send pictures and/or videos all my friends and anyone on the Kik network – including total strangers. (Your kids shouldn’t be using Kik period, see more on that here).
It’s the age-old cat-and-mouse game that parents have been playing with their kids for years. Just when we think we’ve figured out what they’re doing, they move on to something else, and we’re back to square one. Today, this couldn’t be truer as technology changes daily – hourly even. Parents boast all the time that they’re now “friends” with their kids on Facebook. Well, that’s great…except your kids aren’t on Facebook anymore, they’re totally immersed in apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Flinch (B-A-D N-E-W-S, see here), along with a hundred more you’ve mostly likely never heard of.
In my experience, parents have one of two ways of handling Internet safety with their kids. Plan #1: Freak out, panic and pretend it’s not happening. Run, bury your head in the sand, and just pray to any and all higher powers that they narrowly escape any danger or inappropriate behavior that frequently goes hand-in-hand with young kids having access to these powerful devices. Parents that choose this path (definitely my Dad) will most likely believe that their child is a “really good kid” that has historically made good decisions, has great friends and a good head on his/her shoulders. Plan #1 parents will also mostly likely chalk all of this stuff up to a phase, and close their eyes until it (hopefully) goes away.
Plan #2: Face this technology surge head on, roll your sleeves up, and realize this is a MAJOR part of your kids’ lives that inevitably has to be dealt with. Like plan #1, parents with this mentality are undeniably overwhelmed by the constant morphing of technology, (and all of the challenges kids are facing as a result), but acknowledge that it’s not going away. Something has to be done to ensure our kids are safe and having productive experiences with all this technology at their fingertips.
Here’s the problem with Plan #1. It’s insanely tempting, and initially easier (I don’t know of any parent psyched about having the sexting or cyberbullying conversation with their child), but undoubtedly dangerous. If I had a dollar for every time a parent or school administrator told me “I really thought he/she would know better”, I’d be Gwyneth Paltrow-rich. According to a 2010 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids 8-18 are spending an average of 7.5 hours A DAY on some sort of device. A DAY! So, I equate Plan #1 to letting our kids go out on a Saturday night – without any questions about who they’re going with, where they’re going, or when they’ll be back – and just hoping something doesn’t happen. We wouldn’t do it – we can’t do it – because we know that developmentally, kids aren’t wired to make the best decisions. That’s what we’re here for – to parent. And when it comes to Internet safety, it’s really just about that: parenting.
Here’s how to execute Plan #2 – the plan we all need to go with to help foster a positive online experience for our kids and future generations. Bring it back to the basics. Internet safety is really just one more challenge in this giant collection of parenting challenges. If dealt with early and often, you have a really good chance of equipping your child with good information, helpful resources, and great discussions that will lead to a very healthy and positive experience online.
I recently received a frightening email from a Mom of a 9-old-girl who loves Minecraft (which I approve of with some parameters). The mom shared that her daughter received a very explicit, threatening comment from a stranger while playing Minecraft and went on to say, “If you asked me yesterday if my 9-year-old daughter knew the difference between knowing someone in real life and ‘knowing’ them online, I would have thought she understood.” Herein lies the one of the biggest problems: we think and hope our kids know better, and maybe in the offline world they do. But, in this online world, there’s often a false sense of security kids feel behind a screen. I see this phenomenon every single day, whether it’s texting/posting something they wouldn’t normally say to someone’s face (like many cyberbullying incidents), or kids freely communicating with strangers online regardless of “stranger danger” which they learned about in kindergarten.
It’s never too young to start addressing Internet safety issues. In the long run, being proactive is far easier (and much less damaging) than being reactive. Additionally, you’ll have a much easier time laying our your expectations and enforcing your rules when your kids are little; this way, growing up they’ll know this is par for the course when it comes to their technological privileges.
7.5 hours a day is the magic number. If you’re not reasonably checking in with your kids on what they’re doing online (much like you would check in if they went to a friend’s house), then you’re missing out on a REALLY big chunk of their lives. Remember, you’re a parent – part of your job description is to be annoying. We ask questions, set limitations and rules – often to the chagrin of our kids – and consistently reinforce them. Again, doing this when your kids are young will most certainly be easier than springing these rules on your high school-aged kids, but it can – and must – be done, regardless of their age.
How do we even have these conversations? What do we say? I find real-life examples really resonate with kids in these instances. It’s not enough for us to just say, “Don’t talk to people you don’t know online, it’s dangerous” or “Don’t send naked pictures of yourself to anyone, it’s really bad.” Look for real-life examples of how these things have gone wrong (or right – there are just as many examples of how kids are utilizing technology for powerful, wonderful things). Like the aforementioned Minecraft example, or the telling story of the 7th grade girl in Minnesota who shared naked pictures of herself with her boyfriend, only to have them shared with her entire school after they broke up. At the very least they serve as conversation starters; at best, they bring these important, high-level issues down a few notches to something kids can relate to (not just something we’re lecturing them about).
So Gwyneth, it’s understandable if this Internet safety stuff freaks you out. It’s new, it’s fast and it’s ever-changing. But, it’s not going anywhere and is manageable if you’re proactive, persistent and present. Just remember, they’ll thank you later.