Jamie Riley’s 11-year-old son has a Nintendo DS, a Kindle Fire, an iPad, a laptop, a Wii, a PlayStation and an iPod. His 8-year-old sister has a Kindle and uses her mom’s iPad to watch Disney shows. Both kids love their technology, but for the 11-year-old, it defines his life.
With that comes an entirely new set of parenting responsibilities: For Riley and millions of other families, the challenges are many, and growing. How do they keep their kids safe and smart while figuring out this hyperwired world? “We don’t want to deny him — we just have to be a part of it,” Riley said. “It’s taking more parenting, but it’s worth it.”
She knows the risks, and she took action soon after her son learned his first “terrible word” when he was 8 years old, from watching a YouTube video with friends about how to get to the next level on a Mario game, she said from her home near Chattanooga, Tenn.
To protect her kids from accidentally seeing sexual content; from getting scammed, stalked or bullied; or from simply spending too much time in front of a screen, she set up an Internet router with strict filters.
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“We are on lockdown,” she said. “I can’t even buy a bra from here.”
Some protections are simple. Riley, for example, positions her son’s computer in his room so that his parents can see what he’s up to when they walk by. But the most important tool keeping him from falling into the screen trap? Conversation. Lots of conversation.
That, parenting experts say, should be the first line of defense. “Our kids are digital natives, and we’re digital immigrants,” said Deborah Gilboa, a family physician and parenting expert based in Pittsburgh. A mother of four, she asks her own 14-year-old for help. She went to him, for example, to school her on Snapchat and how to use it.
“Acknowledge that kids are more expert than you are,” Gilboa said. “We really teach them something valuable when we respect them enough to ask them about it.”
Parents also need to explain to children what they may face once they start using devices and the Internet. “It’s setting up a relationship with your child in that if they see or do something online that might be a bad idea, they come talk about it.” Discuss in advance what to do if a friend shows them something inappropriate. Give them enough knowledge and confidence so they can walk away.
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These conversations have to be ongoing, said Clayton Ostler, chief product officer at Net Nanny, a parental-control app. “Set up ground rules as a family before you turn them loose. If you do that when they’re small, you don’t argue with a 16-year-old about privacy,” he said. “It will just be a part of your family at that point.”
At workshops where Diana Graber, founder of CyberWise, teaches parents and kids about social media and technology, she points out to parents the controls embedded within the software. “Almost all of them have controls. They cost nothing because they just come from the equipment.”
So, she said, before you hand your kid that first phone, set it up for them.
Another tactic, this one for Apple products, is to set up “family share,” said Adam Pletter, a child psychologist and founder of iParent101, a workshop focused on parenting and technology. When the plan is set up and a child tries to download an app, parents get a notification. That creates an opportunity for a discussion about the app, whether it’s safe and worth it, and gives you time to do a little research. You also have to be the one to approve it.
“You’re making choices as a parent when you hand over that first iTouch. You’re taking on a whole other layer of parenting,” Pletter said.
Then, move on to content restrictions in the apps that are on the devices. You can turn off explicit lyrics in iTunes, for example, or lock kids out of inappropriate content on YouTube. A quick search online will show you how to do that for each app.
Lakweshia Ewing’s 15-year-old half-brother, whom she and her husband have raised, knows that if he misuses his phone, Ewing gets it and he needs to earn it back. They’ve had a lot of conversations about device use — she told her son, “I need you to recognize you’re the only person who can really control the tech you use. It’s about discipline and self-control” — but she supplements that with tracking his online actions.
She has an app installed on his phone so “I get a mirror for every text he sends and gets.” (One example of such an app is TeenSafe.) She also GeoTracks him so she knows where he is, and she set up the native app for the AT&T package her family is on so she can track all six lines they have. And yes, he knows about all of it.
So far, it’s gone well for her 15-year-old. As she said, technology isn’t all bad, but without education about the technology, or limits, it can be dangerous. “I wouldn’t hand an Uzi to my 4-year-old niece,” Ewing explains.
Graber likes Surfie, which lets you track what your child is doing, but she said to make sure to let kids know you have it. Explain that it’s there to keep them safe and to limit their exposure. (As a bonus, it could help limit your screen time, too.)
“This isn’t about clamping down on your child and not letting them experience the world,” Pletter said. “It’s not about stopping them. It’s about connection to their behavior.”
Gilboa, the mother of four, uses a power strip in her own room to keep limits on the screens. All devices charge on that one power strip each night. The idea is that no one touches a device after a set time. “There is no reason for our kids to have a device in their room at night,” she said.
With 5 0 percent of all teens saying they feel addicted to their phones , according to a report by CommonSense Media, cutting off access for a period is imperative.
One mother who heeded Gilboa’s advice later told her she learned two things: First, her 16-year-old daughter was getting texts at 2 and 3 a.m. Second: Her daughter is a much nicer person after a full night of sleep.
It’s important to also model the right behavior yourself: No screens at dinnertime, phones away when you should be talking to each other, and set a time that everyone puts their devices down at the end of the day.
“They will tell you you’re ruining their lives,” Gilboa said, “and you will high-five your parenting partner.”