When Shelley Prevost’s oldest child was 10, she and her husband signed him up for a Minecraft account. “It literally changed my life as a mom overnight,” the psychologist says.
Soon, she and her husband were worried their son was sick. He started to hate school and was sleeping late. The reason, they discovered, was that after she and her husband went to sleep, their son got up, found an iPad or computer, figured out the password, and played Minecraft until it was time to get up for school.
“I had worked so hard to be balanced and boundaried,” she said about the technology. “Everything I tried to do, we just felt in over our head. I would just unplug the router every night.”
She soon talked to friends, one who discovered her daughter using her phone in the middle of the night. Another said her daughter came to her after posting a video on YouTube in which she was wearing a bikini at a pool. A man from another country had tried to get the teen to contact him.
Prevost’s issues with her son were the impetus for her inventing a product called Torch, a wireless router that can act as an Internet timer, filter and blocker. But, she said, she didn’t want this or any other product or app to be a substitute for conversation with her three children. “That’s the key: How do we use these tools as a conversation?”
As children of every age navigate the new world of devices, online games and social media sites, parents are attempting to buckle down in every way possible. Many have downloaded apps or software to block sites or monitor their child’s every online move. They retain passwords and the right to look at anything their tweens are doing on their phones. Others put geotrackers on kids’ devices so they know where they are at all times. But one thing parents can’t forget is how to talk to their children so they can truly monitor what’s going on with devices and all that comes with them.
Let’s put it this way: Your daughter could be crying in her room right now because of something she saw on Snapchat, explained Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive in their Digital World.” But how would you know why she’s crying unless you’re talking with her? Your monitoring app may show she was on Snapchat. That won’t tell you much unless you’re having conversations with your daughter about what she’s facing. “The problem with apps is they give you data, but it’s just raw data,” Heitner says. “If [your teens] are trying to hide from you, they can. … The key is conversation.”
Protecting teens, especially, is a two-step process, says Michael Oberschneider, a child psychologist with Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, and author of the children’s book “Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun.” “Have tons of conversations. And have guidelines in place as a family,” he said. And if you decide to use tracking software or apps, be open about it. “Get buy-in from kids. … Explain what systems you’re using; don’t sneak them onto the phone.” You have to have some trust and respect, he said. And adjust as necessary.
Other advice Oberschneider gives to parents:
- Block adult content with parental controls on all devices.
- Designate screen-free zones in the house.
- Technology use should be in public. Don’t let kids have TVs, gaming systems or computers in their rooms.
- Keep them busy. If your child is outside the house and busy, she or he won’t have the time to become addicted or go off-track with devices.
- Periodically check the browser history of your child or teen’s computer and other devices.
- Talk to your child or teen about appropriate behaviors that apply in both real and online worlds.
- Lead by example and limit your own media use.
- Technology should be a positive thing for children and teens. When used appropriately, it can complement their lives.
- Familiarize yourself with the sites and activities they’re interested in.
- Discuss the importance of anonymity and privacy online.
- Make clear to your child that they should speak to you as soon as they feel harassed, bullied or uncomfortable in any way when using technology.
Helpful sites he recommends for parents to educate themselves:
- Get Net Wise
- American Academy of Pediatrics Safety Net Initiative
- FBI Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety
- Wired Safety
- On Guard Online
But the most important thing is to talk and have a relationship with tweens and teens. Monitoring software exists and can be used gently, but apps that control and watch everything a teen does can easily backfire. “You have to have a plan for independence,” Heitner says. She recently spoke at a high school where a parent told her they still geotrack their child who is at college. “So what’s your plan for later?” Heitner, also a former college professor, asked.
Before your child gets a phone, she suggests, talk about what might come up. “Say things like ‘What will you do when people are talking meanly about someone else in a group text?’ ” You can talk about potential issues as early as third grade, because even the youngest children can pretty easily find things like pornography online. And learn to ask kids first before sharing a photo of them on social media. That way, they can feel like they have control of their online presence, and it will become more ingrained in them to ask before sharing some else’s photo when they’re older.
And to that point, parents, try to keep yourself in check when things go wrong. “We wanted kids to have less sex and get pregnant less, and they’re doing that. But now they’re sending these naked pictures,” Heitner said. Sending nearly nude or nude pictures of oneself isn’t uncommon. Obviously, no one wants their kid to sext, “but it’s so, so prevalent,” she said. “It’s important to discourage, but also to destigmatize.” If you only monitor via app, you may miss important conversations you should have with your child.
We’re handing kids phones when their ability to think about consequences is at an all-time low. As Oberschneider said, we need to be their frontal lobe for them when they are in their teens. As he put it: “That’s why rental car companies don’t rent until someone’s 25.”
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