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Why is my 6-year-old twerking? How do I limit what my 10-year-old can see on
his phone?

These are common questions with complicated answers—but as a parent and child psychologist, I have some basics to help you and your children navigate the digital world safely (with a little help from the engineers at Apple). Many of my strategies are based in the built-in settings of your or your child’s device. The devices come with the basics to help us, the first generation of parents in the digital age. However, most of the product owners don’t know how to find and use these basic tools.

[Parenting in the age of iEverything]

With both technical changes and some basic behavior modifications, you and your child will be more empowered to use technology safely.

I focus on Apple products simply because they are the most common devices about which I’m asked. However, nearly all of the following suggestions can be adapted to Android.

1. Write a Contract. Step one is to think about your expectations and rules for your children in the digital world. Out of the box, all of these devices are setup for adults, not children or teens, so some thinking and prep is necessary before handing it over. You would never drop them off in Times Square and say “Have fun! Don’t get in trouble.” Make the list simple and start with the basics: in order to have access to this amazing device, this is what we (your parents) are responsible for and in return, this is what is expected of you. The written list of rules will evolve over time so don’t worry if it’s incomplete. Parents and kids sign it and date it. Revisit the contract at least once a year to make sure it’s still on point. Communicate about your child’s experience online and adjust the contract to have limits while supporting their developing digital skills. Many examples of these contracts are found online. Find one but make it your own by editing it and adding in your family’s values and personal examples (e.g., parents should always know the passcode to their child’s device).

2. Enable Restrictions and have a conversation. Whenever possible, you should enable restrictions on the adult device before your child has ever used it. By using these built-in parental controls, found under Settings, then General and then Restrictions, you have the power to set limits and supervise what your child can see and do on the device. Play around and get familiar with the controls. If the restrictions are initially set too high, even better. That way your child will come to you and you can have a great dialogue about what they want to do and then you can explain whether that’s okay, and why or why not. That conversation with your child, whether you grant permission or not, is the key. Consistent restrictions force the child to pause and then come find you to talk about their request. By doing so you are teaching him to think about his actions online—a necessary and invaluable skill for all digital users.

3. Turn off/ Delete YouTube. If you are concerned about the time spent or videos viewed, I suggest turning off (or temporarily deleting) the YouTube app and blocking YouTube in the web browser. Imagine the learning experiences possible when your child is motivated to behave appropriately in order to keep Youtube on his device. This type of learning is essential as he grows older in the digital world. I don’t promote ‘Just say no’, but rather ‘Yes, when…’ Such as: Yes you can have YouTube when you behave appropriately (e.g., no twerking at the dinner table).

4. Guided Access. IPhones are all-in-one devices, which is pretty incredible, but also incredibly problematic for our children. Want your kid to practice math facts but every time you leave the room, he switches from the educational app to Minecraft? After a brief set up, again under Settings, look for Guided Access.  There, you can lock the device on one app until you (the parents) put in a code or release it with your fingerprint. This is a powerful tool for parents as it allows for some flexibility. No longer is the device either off limits in a drawer or free access. She wants to listen to music? Okay. But not texting and watching videos at the same time. (By the way, off limits in a drawer is a fine and sometimes necessary strategy to limit their usage also, but that’s for a different article.)

5. Be a model for your child. Remember the Partnership for Drug Free America ad campaign? You know, the one where the father confronts his son after finding marijuana and the son looks up and replies, “I learned it by watching you!” Well, it’s true. Your children are learning about the world by watching you and that’s a good thing. You helped them learn to talk, walk, eat with a fork. Pretty much everything they now do, you directly influenced.

[How will our kids interpret the world? Through us.]

So, at a minimum, be mindful of how often the phone is in your hands. How often are you reading work e-mails or texting while your child is present? Be aware that they are learning and being shaped by what they perceive around them. Work toward being the good influence that you ideally want your child to be around. Your kids will quickly know more than you do. However, for now you are in charge, and therefore, you must use the tools available. Thankfully, we have the basic tools built in to the devices. It’s our obligation as parents to set reasonable limits and consistently follow through so our children learn how to safely navigate the digital world independently.

Just like any other family topic, if parents don’t lead, the children will learn elsewhere. New technology can be scary, but don’t let your fear of technology limit your ability to parent in the digital world.

We have no choice and your children are not afraid.
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Adam Pletter is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of children, adolescents, and young adults. Based in Bethesda, Md., he runs a workshop about parenting and technology called iParent 101. You can find more information at iParent101 on Facebook or by emailing iparent101workshop@gmail.com.

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