Your kids are going to be online; it's inevitable in this day and age. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges this, which is one reason the organization recently changed its screen time recommendations. Rather than giving a specific limit for how much screen time kids should be getting, the AAP recommends that parents come up with a media use plan that makes sense for their families and become media mentors for their kids.
It can be difficult to figure out how to be that media mentor. One of the scariest thing about our kids' online lives is that the newness and ever-changing nature of online technology means that we're learning all the ins and outs on the fly, and the fact is that much of the time our kids, even the youngest ones, are more knowledgeable about the technology than we are.
Our responsibility to protect our kids online is made all the more difficult by the fact that we're learning on the job. Dr. Melissa Westendorf, Mequon area clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Technology Wellness Center, says, "We can teach our kids to drive a car because we were taught. Now we have to teach our kids what to do with these apps and social media, and we've never had to deal with this before. Our generation has a harder time parenting because of all this. Hopefully, our kids will have an easier time because they're growing up with it."
There are advantages to working, playing and communicating online. It's easier than ever to stay in contact with family members that live far away. There are tons of valuable learning resources for kids of all capacities, including those with special needs. And the answer to any of your child's questions is literally at your fingertips.
In order to be effective media mentors for our kids so that they can safely take part in all the good that the online world offers, we need to be educated about all the bad.
We've all heard the heartbreaking stories of kids who get bullied online and who end up committing suicide. It's terrifying to think that something so horrible could happen to our own children, and we all hope we've given them the emotional backbone to be able to handle any bullying that happens to them.
Westendorf makes the point though that because online bullying happens wherever the child has internet access, even the most loving and available families have more trouble now than they did in the past in supporting their children who are victims of bullying. "Bullying has been around forever, but kids used to be able to go home and get away from it. They used to have that sanctuary of those who loved them and a place to decompress. But they can't do that anymore; all of that bullying comes home with them."
Many apps that are popular with tweens and teens also make it way too easy to bully their classmates without fear of repercussion. Apps like Yik Yak, Kik and Whisper allow people to message others anonymously. Westendorf recommends that parents think twice before allowing their kids to download apps like these.
One of the most dangerous things about the online world is that for many kids (and adults), it doesn't seem like the real world. Kids easily get the feeling that they're alone on their computer or on their phone and that the world they're interacting with is no more real than the video games they're probably playing on the same devices.
That artificiality is one reason it's so easy for kids who would never bully another person face-to-face to be so mean. It's also a big reason kids feel like they're safe and can make themselves susceptible to online predators. They may not see the people they're talking to as real and let their guard down more easily than they otherwise would, leaving themselves open to being located by scary people.
Along these lines, there are certain apps (like Tinder, Blender and Amigo) that Westendorf says kids shouldn't be using at all because the only reason they exist is for dating, flirting and "hooking up" -- activities kids shouldn't be taking part in online where they never really know who they're talking to. Additionally, apps like Vault, which allows users to place things they want no one to see (such as phone call logs, private files and photos), may have legitimate uses for adults, but if your child has them installed on their phone, Westendorf says, "they're hiding something." And it's important to not allow your kids to hide what they're doing online from you.
Becoming your child's media mentor
The world of social media, online interactions and app-based conversations definitely seems like a scary place for our kids. But, especially considering there are many benefits to all this modern social technology, we need to figure out how to live with it and how to make it a safe and beneficial place for our kids.
It's also important to note that, as Westendorf points out, this is how our kids communicate now, and to deny them that would show how little we understand them and ultimately backfire on us. "We even encourage parents that they should be texting with their older kids because that's how they communicate. It lets them be silly and it's their form of communication. We just have to be vigilant."
Here are ten ways to be vigilant and help our kids navigate their social media world.
1. Put it in writing. The folks at the Technology Wellness Center recommend that parents should draw up a contract with their tweens and teens setting out specific guidelines to establish a healthy technology use balance. The book by Westendorf and Dr. Lisa Strohman, "Unplug: Raising kids in a technology addicted world," gives examples of such contracts.
2. Monitor your children's online activities. This includes keeping track of the apps they have on their phones, the sites they visit on their computers and the social media communities they frequent. Westendorf says, "I always say, 'Listen, I own this phone, and I get to know all the business that's occurring on this phone.'"
3. Research the apps. Stay up-to-date both on what apps your kids have on their devices and on what other apps are out there. Remember that the technology evolves quickly, and the most popular apps are always changing. Make sure you know what's available just as well as your child does.
4. Test the apps yourself. If you're questioning the appropriateness of an app on your child's phone, Westendorf suggests that you download the app onto your own phone to test out all the different things your child is able to do with it.
5. Be realistic about what kids (both yours and others) are capable of. You should be monitoring their activities to make sure they're not being bullied, but also to make sure they're not bullying others. Westendorf says, "Don't love your kids so much that you think they'll never do these things. Kids bully each other, and your kids will do it too, and the apps make it very easy to do it."
6. Make your kids' bedrooms technology-free zones. This is a good idea both to make it more difficult for your kids to hide what they're doing online from you, and to prevent devices from distracting your kids from much-needed rest.
7. Be good role models for your kids. Avoid your own social media addictions! Westendorf says, "We do parent talks all the time where we have conversations about good role modeling. We try to talk about tech free Tuesdays. Around dinnertime, everything gets shut down, and that's for parents too. If you try to live up to that as much as you can, it can help kids realize that they can deal with not having their devices for a night."
8. Unplug before bed. Westendorf says it's a good idea to turn off electronic devices a few hours before bedtime in order to give the body's melatonin enough time to adjust to get a good night's sleep. Of course, Westendorf acknowledges that tweens and teens often need to use a computer to do their homework in the evening. In that case, she suggests investing in a pair of computer glasses which work to block the blue light that prevents needed melatonin levels.
9. Give your kids an age-appropriate dose of reality. It can be hard for kids to understand the importance of protecting their identities online. Showing them can be more effective. Westendorf suggests that around fifth grade, you should show your kids how to Google themselves. That will give them an impactful visual of how easy it is for others to find out details about them.
10. Talk, talk, and more talk! The single best way to be an online mentor to your children is also the best way to be any kind of mentor to your children. Build a relationship with them by talking with them, knowing their interests, their friends, their hopes, their dreams, who they are. Your kids will be much more likely to take your advice, to open up to you and to respect you if they feel close to you.
For resources on protecting your kids online, visit technologywellnesscenter.com