From researching school projects, learning endless facts about engaging subjects, communicating with friends, and playing interactive games, there’s no doubt that the internet has a lot to offer kids. But near-constant access through computers, smartphones, video game consoles and tablets can have major pitfalls. Innocent Google searches can turn up websites with adult content or upsetting imagery; social media can be used to bully and intimidate; and studies suggest that too much screen time can lead to behavioral issues, anxiety and depression. As parents, our most important job is to keep kids safe—and that includes online. Here are six critical steps you can take to help protect and educate your kids about the internet, media consumption and our digital world.
For parents of younger children, setting strict limits on media usage is relatively doable since most toddlers haven’t quite mastered the remote or memorized the iPad password. But once kids enter grade school, all bets are off—kids learn how to control devices; computer time becomes a school mandate; and friends may even have their own phones. With access all around them, time limits may not be a realistic way to minimize their online exposure. According to healthychildren.org, the key is balance:
All children and teens need adequate sleep (8-12 hours, depending on age), physical activity (1 hour), and time away from media. Designate media-free times together (e.g., family dinner) and media-free zones (e.g., bedrooms). Children should not sleep with devices in their bedrooms, including TVs, computers and smartphones.
Instead focusing on a specific amount of time spent on devices, make sure your child’s day is well-rounded and you’re instilling healthy habits.
As your child becomes more media and internet savvy, it’s critical for you know what content your child is consuming. Keep computers and other devices in shared spaces of the home, such as the kitchen or family room, where you can keep an eye on what your child is watching, reading and posting. In addition, know your child’s passwords and regularly check their browser history. Consider using parental controls to block certain content from your kids. All computer operating systems, phones and web browsers offer restrictions that parents can activate and manage, or you can purchase blocking software like Net Nanny that gives you even more control over what your kids can access online.
Teach media literacy.
While the internet may be an incredible resource, false information and fake news have become pervasive and not always easily distinguishable from legitimate websites. How do you help your child understand the difference? Common Sense Media, an organization dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology, suggests teaching kids these tips to assess the accuracy of a site:
- Scrutinize URLs for unfamiliar domain suffixes, such as .lo instead of .com, .org or .gov.
- Look for grammatical errors, a lack of sources and sensational headlines.
- Check out the about page to learn who writes for the site and who supports it – if this information doesn’t exist or is difficult to find, there’s good reason to be suspicious.
- Use fact-checking websites to confirm information or see if other credible sites (like well-known news outlets) are reporting similar stories.
Online privacy is a complex issue and includes protecting your child’s identity online as well as his or her reputation. Parents can use privacy controls to ensure that social media profiles are private, opt out of location sharing and not allow apps to publish information to other sites. You’ll also want to talk to your kids about thinking before they share identifying information, like their home address, what school they attend or their phone number; or send or post photos or videos of themselves on websites or through apps like Instagram and Snapchat. This not only protects privacy, it also protects them from releasing information and photos that can be damaging to their reputation now or in the future. Remind them that once something is online, it can be difficult to remove entirely.
Pre-social media, bullying primarily happened during the school day, which meant home was often a safe haven for kids. No more. Cyberbullying includes activities such as sending threats, spreading rumors, impersonating another person online, and posting unflattering photos of someone through websites, social media platforms and text messages. According to Cyberbully.org, approximately 34% of students experience cyberbullying in their lifetimes, and the consequences of participating in cyberbullying or being bullied can be devastating.
Talk to your kids about cyberbullying. First, make it clear that you have zero tolerance for participation in cyberbullying. Stress to your kids that they must treat people online with the same kindness they would in person and monitor their online activity to ensure they are not contributing to this issue. Second, talk regularly about what is going on your child’s life. If you think your child is being cyberbullied, pay close attention to his behavior and monitor his text messages and social media conversations. If you discover cyberbullying, discuss it with the school administration and have them take action. If physical threats are being made, contact law enforcement.
Practice what you preach.
It’s easy to tell kids to stay off their phones, keep devices out of their bedroom, turn off the TV and use common sense online. But they need to see you being a good media steward as well. In other words, put down the phone and carve out media-free time to spend with your kids every day, keep the devices away from the dinner table, and foster a home environment that is open, honest, loving and caring.