Many parents are aware of the hazards that technology offers our teens and preteens – from cyberbullying to sexting, and from information beyond their maturity levels to cyberpredators. Not only that, but screentime can encourage a sedentary lifestyle, which may lead to obesity or other health problems. Some parents may feel like there’s nothing they can do about technological dangers. After all, teens seem so much more tech-savvy than their parents these days. Can’t kids get around any barriers parents set up?
In fact, says Jennifer Cassatly, a clinical psychiatrist who works with children and their parents, there are several ways you can help to monitor your child’s technology use and guide them in using it appropriately.
First of all, keep in mind that educating your child about technology begins long before the teen years. Not only that, but it should be an ongoing conversation with your child, not one quick sit-down talk. “It’s the same thing as talking to kids about friendships, relationships, drugs, or anything else,” says Cassatly. That means bringing it up as you go along. Talk to your children about their online interests, ask them who they like to talk to online and what they talk about, and give some advice about internet safety.
For example, any of these conversation openers might help you to educate your child about internet safety, even during middle childhood:
- “Wow, that looks like an interesting site you’re looking at. What do you like about it?”
- “It seems like you’re spending a lot of time messaging your friends recently. Do you mostly message kids from school? What kinds of things do you talk about?”
- “You know how we’ve talked about not talking to strangers? Well, have you ever thought about the fact that some people who are online might be ‘strangers’ too?”
- “What are your favorite games that you play online? I’ve never heard of that one. Can I watch you play it? What’s your favorite part of it?”
Keep in mind that these questions are not supposed to sound like an interrogation, and in middle childhood, there’s a good chance that your kids will appreciate sharing this part of their lives with you. What you’re doing isn’t really “fishing for dirt”; it’s opening the lines of communication with your children on the subject of technology, and letting them know that you’re interested in talking to them about it. As they get older, keep on talking to them so that they’ll feel comfortable coming to you if they’re not sure what to do, or if they feel they’re getting in over their heads.
Use Technology to Monitor Technology
Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire, and sometimes you have to use technology in order to keep your child’s relationship with technology healthy. For example, if you see that your child is using her cell phone late at night and therefore doesn’t get enough sleep, you can arrange for your provider to automatically turn off her phone at a given time at night. You can also become a site administrator on your child’s social networking sites like Facebook.
For younger children who might accidentally mistype a site address and encounter age-inappropriate material, you can organize a bookmark history so that they can click on the links of any games or activities that they usually play. You can also put blocks on the search engines and on YouTube.
One less-known option you have is to have all of the texting history from your child’s phone mailed to you. Don’t worry – that doesn’t mean you have to read all of their texts. In fact, Cassatly advises parents not to read any texts at all, unless you have a strong reason to suspect that your child may be experiencing cyberbullying, sexting, or any other dangerous side of texting.
“Texting conversations are personal, like a diary, or like any conversation,” says Cassatly. “But having that option in place, and telling your children about it from the first time that they get a cell phone, can help you down the line if something comes up. It can save you from being in a double bind if you do need to read your child’s texts, for their safety.” Of course, there is rarely a need to do so, but if there is a true need due to high risk behaviors, at least it is an option.
If you’re not sure whether you’d like to use any of these interventions in the long term, consider trying them anyway. “It’s very hard to go from a very loose, permissive household to a more strict one,” says Cassatly. “It’s much easier to loosen restrictions on kids and give them more freedom over time.”
Know Your Kids
Knowing your kids is also one major step towards making sure that they are using technology safely. Take the time to get to know who their friends are, how their school days are going, and where they spend a lot of their time. Also, keep in mind that some kids are more susceptible to technological dangers than others.
Here are some questions that you can ask yourself about your kids to determine whether they have any of the risk factors for falling prey to the dangers of technology:
- Does your child lack friends?
- Has your child seemed to withdraw recently?
- Does your child spend all of her time online?
- Has your child been bullied or depressed?
Give Children Positive Alternatives
Keep in mind that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no more than two hours of screentime – or time in front of a television, computer, cell phone, or other electronic screen – each day. As a parent, you can set the rules about how long your children stay online or on their cell phones, but you’ll be a lot more successful if you give children positive activities to replace screentime. Play games as a family or one-on-one, encourage them to read, and keep a variety of interesting activities around the house. With a bit of work on your part, you can help your child have a healthy relationship with technology.