Teens not only know all the latest Apps and ways to connect online, they have front row seats to see how they can be used and abused. Ideally, teens have been taught from an early age to make wise decisions about which are appropriate to use, and how and what is appropriate to share on these platforms. Teaching your child to think critically about their privacy and online safety when they are young is the best tool you have, as a parent, to protect them. Your job is to be a safety net for the internet, until your child is ready to go net free.
Both you and your child have lessons to learn. Yours is to learn – at warp speed – what is new, and how it can be used to benefit or harm your child. Your child needs to learn boundaries, online safety, and the rules around safe sharing and privacy that go with being online.
My husband, an engineer, built his first computer in high school long before the “inter-web” of today. He’s our in-house IT guy and has mad skills in the block, limit and monitor departments. Our kids started using his old laptops as toddlers, but their access to the internet was always limited and supervised. No easy task when many of their friends’ online activities were not, but we never accepted the “all the other kids get to” line. No “M” (Mature) games or “T” (Teen) games until you’re a T or an M. They shared a desktop in our family room until high school, and got their first cell phones in Grade 9. We had their passwords; could and would (without notice) check their online activity. These were the rules, take it or leave it. Not once have did they say they lost a friend because of their parents’ rules regarding online privileges.
The norms for an appropriate age for a cell phone, laptop or tablet is much younger than it was for my teens, making it even more important to set boundaries and be tireless about teaching your kids to protect themselves and their privacy online. With many schools having Wi-Fi, it is essential kids master the skills and have tools to manage their own online activity. If you’re not ready to talk to your child openly and specifically spell out the potential dangers online because it might scare them, then your child is too young to be online. Without these conversations they are vulnerable and without the tools or context to deal with a situation should it arise.
The other day I was chatting with a Mom old school, on a thing called a telephone. During our conversation she received a text from her 10 year old daughter who was at a friend’s house, asking if she could download Instagram to her cell phone. The Mom asked what I thought. My first reaction was absolutely not, she is way too young. The Mom said her daughter’s friends use Instagram to share a new outfit or plan what they are going to wear so, remembering things have changed, I asked a teenager. My youngest (aka Thing #2) is as tech savvy a teen as you’ll find.
So I asked Thing #2 if he thought 10 is too young for Instagram. His answer was yes. In teen speak he basically said what I was thinking; the potential for harm is high and the benefits low. She’s not old enough to fully understand the bigger picture and potential long term consequences of a lapse in judgement. In my opinion social media is not a place for kids. The stakes are too high. Parents struggle to keep up with new technology and to monitor their kids’ online activities, adding more social media platforms only increases the time required to do so. A single platform such as Facebook which you have the password for, and texting is all a child really needs until high school. Use parental controls on devices and internet access points. Have frequent conversations about online safety, starting the first day they sit in front of a computer, hold a Smartphone or a tablet. Investing the time when they are young to establish good lines of communication will pay off as they hit the teen years. The idea is to reduce the restrictions and monitoring over a period of years as the child matures and demonstrates they can handle the responsibility.
Not understanding, hoping for the best, or accepting all the other kids are doing it is NOT an option. No one said parenting is easy. It’s not! It’s hard work every day, 24/7 365 days a year, but maybe some guidelines and resources can make this part just a bit easier. Below are some of the ones I have used:
- You are the boss. End of story. Parents may not understand all of the devices and games but we do know how to do one thing: push the off button.
- Create a contract – Before online privileges are given, a written contract between you and your child – outlining the rules for online usage and consequences for not following the rules – should be printed and signed by both of you. Online access is a privilege, not a right, and with privileges come responsibilities. Post the contract somewhere visible, and review it regularly. These rules apply to online activity everywhere, not just at home. If they’re not allowed to do it at home, they’re not allowed to do it at a friend’s house. Have the courage to say no; your child will learn more from how you handle this than any online educational game. Establish a coding system to help your child understand and remember the rules. The one below is quick and visual way to colour code specific sites, Apps, and social media platforms.
- In our family, my husband and I owned the phones, tablets, computers and gaming systems. The kids owned the games. This allowed us to completely avoid the “but it’s mine and you can’t tell me what to do with it” conversation. Instead, out of the goodness of our hearts, we let our kids borrow the WiiU, Play Station, computer etc. My husband received many a gaming system for Christmas.
- Devices are to be used in common areas where they can be supervised. If your child is not okay with this then maybe reading a book is a better option. You have all passwords and full access to all devices. Teach your child never to share passwords (except with you) and how to create strong passwords containing: 2 upper case letters, 2 lower case letters, 2 symbols, and 2 numbers.
- Put parental controls on devices and internet access points. There are a variety of Apps and ways to do this. If your child uses your tablet or phone be sure they cannot access material that is private or inappropriate. An excellent resource I strongly recommend is Monica Villa – The Online Mom. You’ll find tons of great information on her site. Be sure to take a look at the section specific to online safety.
- Be diligent about staying up to date on new Apps and social media platforms, what the kids are using, and how they are using them. I hadn’t heard of 7 of 15 social media Apps mentioned in the first article linked below, but I bet my kids have.
15 Sites and Apps Kids Are Heading to Beyond Facebook
Parents, If Your Kids Have Any of These 10 Dangerous Apps, It’s Time to Hit “Delete”
Moms, you oughta know: 11 social media apps teens are using now
By teaching your child to think for themselves and to make good choices you’re investing in their future. In the mean time, you’re still the parent. If you feel uncomfortable about something, there’s probably a reason. Parents use their gut feelings and intuition all the time; use it here. If a site, App or your child’s response to enquiries about how they’re using it leaves you with an uneasy feeling about allowing it, then don’t.
Cathy from Cathy Thinking Out Loud is a Mom to two teenagers, and a tech challenged tech enthusiast who loves to travel. Her background is in banking but what she really likes best is finding ways to link people and ideas, share information and make people laugh.