For today’s kids, the Internet is full of endless promise and potential, an exciting place to explore, learn, create, and share. For parents, however, the Internet can be a place full of threats to children’s safety and privacy. It’s tempting to set up blocks and filters to stop children from exploring, but it won’t be long before these blocks are circumvented. Some of the best “hackers” I know are my 10 year old nephews who constantly find new ways to subvert the family firewall to get access to blocked content. The more it gets locked down, the more interested they are in finding ways around it!
So should we panic? Absolutely not, because even though the internet presents some risks, the internet also represents a place to explore, play, share and, most importantly, learn. With a few basic steps you can balance your child’s safety while developing their online life.
Start a Discussion
With a full 95% of teens aged 12-17 now online it’s important to realise the internet is here to stay. The best way to deal with this, as with many parenting challenges, is through open and consistent conversation. With the internet being such an important part of our own adult lives, it shouldn’t present too much of a challenge to get things started – merely mention something you saw of note today and steer the conversation around to what your child might be doing online and anything they might’ve seen or heard which they’d like to discuss.
Technology has created something of a role reversal for parents, it is one of the few areas in life where kids are often more skilled than their parents. Let’s face it, when it comes time to set up that new Apple TV, it’s usually the kids we turn to for help.
One pillar of good internet parenting is to be involved. Treat screentime in the same way you would, say, reading a book or playing in the backyard – don’t merely toss the iPad to your child for some peace and quiet, sit down with them and explore what interests them. Not only is this a great way to bond over your child’s interests, it’s also a great way to ensure the content they’re viewing is appropriate. Indeed, studies showed the vast majority of kids would change their internet behaviour when their parents were watching.
Talk to other parents
Good cyber-parenting isn’t a solo undertaking. Kids are viewing internet content on an ever-growing number of devices, and while most use still takes place at home, increasing numbers are using technology at school and at a friends’ house, away from direct parental supervision. This means you should chat through challenges, ideas and concerns with your child’s friends’ parents to make sure you’re all on the same page. Truth is, bad internet practices can quickly spread amongst a group of friends.
Screen time has benefits, such as encouraging kids to write more, however, like many things in life you need to be careful of too much of a good thing. For example, a 2015 Cambridge University study found that an extra hour over and above the average amount of screen time for teenagers could lead to their GCSE results falling by 2 grades. Some examples of healthy boundaries to set could be; set times where devices are/aren’t acceptable, certain devices only allowed to be used in certain rooms (communal living spaces for example) or no devices during meal times.
Screen free time before bed
This is so tempting for kids and adults alike. One last email, one last check of Facebook, one last journey through the wonder which is Minecraft. In fact, one poll found 95% of Americans use technology within an hour of bed. This causes issues in three distinct ways, firstly it encourages kids to go to bed later. Secondly, it excites them close to bedtime. And finally, the light emissions can disrupt the body’s natural rhythms. So when bedtime comes near read them a book or tell them a story, their body clocks will thank you!
Lead by example
Watching your child develop is one of life’s great thrills. And truthfully, most of what they learn they learn from you, their parents. The same goes for their use of technology. If you tune them out to reply to a text or check Facebook, they’ll learn that too. Indeed, one sad fact is that many kids feel they need to compete for attention with their parents’ devices, so be sure to lead by example.
The internet is always changing, and that means you’ll probably need to constantly make efforts to educate yourself about what’s available to your kids, who they’re talking to and what they’re talking about it. Acronyms are a good place to start, ever seen “POS” come up on your child’s chat screens? If so, you should know it means “parent over shoulder”. Yep, they’re onto you. But don’t worry, let them know you know what it mean and they’ll have a whole new respect for their “cool” mum or dad.
Use technology as an opportunity to connect
Get your child to show you things that they find fun or engaging on technology or the Internet. Be open minded and genuinely interested in what they are doing (even if you find it somewhat baffling), learn about their world and explore it with them. The more your child is comfortable engaging with you on the fun stuff, the more they’ll be open to discussing with you some of the more challenging things they discover online.
Whether it’s the digital world or the physical one, children are always going to explore, experiment and push boundaries. That’s part of the job description of being a kid. Our job is not to stop them from exploring, but to give them the opportunity to explore safely, and to help them build the knowledge and experience so they can safely make their own decisions.
Daniel Zwolenski, author of this article, is co-founder of Code Camp and has taught 10,000 children from ages 5-12 to code around Australia as part of holiday camp programs. Code Camp’s mantra is #infinitepossibilities.