If you’ve spent any time at all on social media lately (and let’s face it, what parent doesn’t escape to Facebook now and again for some adult conversation?), you’ve probably seen one of the “good old days” memes. They’re all slightly different, but there’s one general sentiment: Kids today are spoiled brats, and technology is to blame. It’s easy enough to hit share when you’re thinking back to your glorious childhood of climbing trees and reading battered paperbacks. But if you’re a parent struggling with the question of when to let your kids into the world of modern technology and just how to keep them safe, the memes can be a slap in the face. Of course you were out on your bike instead of texting on an iPhone when you were 12…the iPhone hadn’t yet been invented! But now you’re raising a child in the era of digital natives, and at some point gadgets are going to end up in their hands, if only because they’re part of most public school programs in this day and age. So what can you do to keep your kids from being swallowed up by the internet behemoth?
1. Use technology to your advantage.
By the time your kids are 18 months old, it’s okay to let them have some screen time, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. They even offer up recommended time limits for each age group. If you’re looking to stick to the doctors’ limits or make your own, there’s no need to clock watch while you’re trying to do laundry and make dinner. Technology is on your side. Internet filtering and monitor systems are a wise (and relatively inexpensive) investment to make from the get-go. Some, like Disney’s Circle, allow parents to preset sites kids can visit and allot an amount of time kids can spend online before the system shuts them out, turning that iPad in your 2-year-old’s hand into a really expensive sippy cup coaster. Before you purchase something new, dig out the guidebook for your wifi router. Some have similar controls.
2. Follow the rules.
Most of the age-related guidelines are just that, guidelines. There’s no punishment if you’re down with the flu and your toddler (gasp!) watches three hours of Paw Patrol. Most social media platforms, on the other hand, have hard and fast rules that kids cannot create profiles until age 13. If a child is discovered on the platform, they can be kicked off entirely. Sure, your kids are (almost definitely) going to have friends whose parents let them break the platform rules. They’ll tell you that they want to be on Instagram just like Jamal or Joanie. But pulling up each platform’s terms of service can help quash the complaints. Although you don’t want to badmouth another parent, remind your kids that rules in your house are meant to be followed. Placing internet rules in the context of home rules can also cement in their mind that there’s no wiggle room…not even on that “no dessert before dinner” rule.
3. Be a good netizen.
When someone brakes hard in front of you and you let out a stream of curse words, you know your toddler is bound to pick up a new vocabulary. Kids watch us. They learn from us. And that applies to what we do online too. If you are using “iffy” websites to download free movies that you’re not quite sure are legal or if you’re engaging in some nasty rage tweeting, your kids are taking notice…and the chances that they stumble on those iffy sites or turn into cyberbullies themselves are much higher.
4. Lock things down.
The services a child needs to access on a gadget vary wildly depending on their age and why you gave them the gadget in the first place. If you give a 4-year-old a tablet for reading books, for example, they likely don’t need internet access. And a 6-year-old may like looking up facts about animals, but they don’t need to be able to iMessage with anyone. Before you hand over any gadget, get acquainted with what it does, and turn off any services you don’t feel your child needs or is ready to handle. That could mean giving your 4-year-old an iPad with the texting, email, and internet browser shut off, plus a password lock that prevents them from downloading any new content without your approval. Or it could mean removing apps such as YouTube and replacing them with kid-friendly video apps such as YouTube Kids so your animal-crazy 6-year-old can see funny cat videos without finding something more insidious.
5. Monitor the situation.
Reading a child’s texts or checking their internet browser history may feel like a violation of privacy to some parents, but the stakes are much higher on the internet than they are with a handwritten diary shoved under the mattress. Make kids aware from the start that their gadgets are a privilege, not a right, and that the sites they visit and the texts they send will be monitored. This can help ease your guilt while also making them think each time they use their tablet or phone, “Hey, Mom or Dad is going to see this. Do I want them to?”
6. Don’t shy away from the hard stuff.
Sexting and cyberbullying aren’t just serious parenting issues. They can be legal issues too. Even a photo of themselves can be construed as child pornography by the police. Talking to our kids early and often seems to be the most effective way to head off these issues, so don’t delay. Even before a child has their own gadget with a camera, they need to know that they should be wary of their friends taking photos (even if they’re innocently changing in the background at a sleepover or taking wild selfies). Make sure they’re keenly aware that anything can be screenshot and saved, even on apps like Snapchat, where media is designed to “disappear.” When in doubt, remember: You know your kids. The rules you lay down should fit them and your family both.