In my house, back to school is the best time to establish new habits and routines, and this year will include new family rules around Internet safety.
My daughters are seven and ten and each have their own tablet. When I check in with them about what they’re doing it’s usually insipid YouTube videos (blind bag openings … WHAT IS THE APPEAL?), Minecraft, or kids shows on Netflix. But I don’t always know for sure what they’re up to. Unfortunately, my little nuggets are at the age where they know what will fly and what won’t, and they’re smart enough to hide anything I won’t approve of.
The Berenstain Bears Christmas special? Thumbs up.
Wet Hot American Summer? Not so much.
The Internet is an incredible place and I want my kids to be tech-savvy and able to navigate it easily and with confidence. However, the Internet has a dark side too and I hate to admit it, but I am woefully lax about what my kids are doing and watching when they’re lying on their beds having quiet time, or sitting in the back seat of the car with headphones on.
My kids and I talk about strangers, how to properly cross the street and to never play with matches. We talk about appropriate touching and about bullying. But I’ve never once had a conversation with them about how to stay safe online.
Pornography, cyber-bullying, online predators, over-sharing on social media, the list of dangers and potential problems goes on and on. For a low-tech mama who didn’t grow up online this issue is compounded by the fact that I don’t even understand how a lot of this happens, which means I’m not confident I can educate my kids about it.
So where to begin?
First, Do Your Homework
A friend told me about a chilling incident with her eight-year old son whom she suspects was being groomed by someone who was not who he claimed to be while the two of them were gaming online. Upon hearing her story it became clear to me that I need to start asking and understanding things like, how does that game work? Who are you competing against? What does that person say to you? How do you know what she’s saying is true?
Next, Make Rules About Content
And have consequences for breaking them. As parents we need to set clear expectations for what our kids cannot do or watch online. In my house the no list will include anything with bad language, nudity, excessive violence or anything I deem “inappropriate”, the latter being a gloriously vague catchall that allows me to shut down anything I don’t like (including Barbie Life in the Dreamhouse, which is making my kids dumber by the minute.)
Joking aside, as much as our expectations need to be clear, questionable content isn’t always black and white. It’s whatever you decide for your family. There are a handful of shows I don’t let my kids watch even though there’s no nudity, violence or bad language. I shut them down simply because I don’t like the way the kids talk to each other, or to their parents, and because if my kids try using those same smart-ass tones and retorts they’ll land in a heap of trouble at home and at school.
Third, Educate Yourself
I plan to take the “stranger danger” conversation into the twenty-first century and educate myself and my kids about all the ways they can get into trouble with strangers online including instant message, gaming and social media. And what follows will be the difficult and heartbreaking explanation as to why people might be lying them.
Finally, take a look at your own habits
Barely a day goes by when I don’t say “do that again” or “hold on so I can get a picture.” I’ve taught them that everything they do is content and Instagram-worthy, which could be a problem in the future. I will try to set a better example.
Resources You Can Try
Every family is different and for some, these steps might be enough for now. If you need to go farther, there are several products that set parental controls and manage kids’ time online including Circle with Disney and Ontario-based Kids Wifi. Products like these can give parents peace of mind around their kids’ online activities and allow them to see what’s been accessed. Automatic bedtime shut-off also ensures our littles aren’t hiding under the covers with their device after lights out.
Some parents also have their older kids sign contracts that acknowledge what is acceptable content covering everything from musical genres to nude photos. Others insist on having the passwords to their kids’ devices and/or equip them with the parent’s own fingerprint. Many parents have rules about where the devices can be used, making private spaces like bedrooms and washrooms no-phone zones.
No one wants to freak their kids out or to create the impression that technology and the internet are bad, so if all this seems like overkill and alarmist, consider this: Explain these new rules using the same context and reasoning you use when telling them why they can’t go to the park by themselves yet, or why you always need to know where they are. It’s about safety. It’s about mommy and daddy knowing where you are and what you’re doing so they can keep you safe. And if something happens that makes you uncomfortable, tell us.
The Internet is essentially a “place” kids can go, and parents need to be as vigilant about where their kids are online as they are in their own bricks and mortar neighbourhoods.
Want to know more? Consider contacting your local police department and inquiring about Internet Safety workshops for your school and community.