By Hollie Gilman, iBelieve.com
I am part of the first generation to raise kids in the smartphone era. We felt the pressure when our oldest was 12. The iPod was prevalent and “everyone” had one. When we finally caved, we honestly just didn’t know what the device was capable of beyond being a music player. Parents today are savvy and know our kids carry powerful computers in their pockets 24/7.
Unforeseen consequences of phone use include its impact on peer and family relationships, our overall well-being and mental health, safety in online interactions, sexting, and exposure to pornography as early as age 9-11. This type of access puts parents of teens and tweens in the position of teaching an almost unimaginable amount of responsibility—as though their lives depend on it. What is terrifying is that if we are not diligent in this task, it just might.
Here are 5 ways we can begin to keep our kids safe online.
According to the latest research, the average age of a child owning a smartphone in 2016 was 10.3 (elementary school age) down from age 12 in 2012. Many parents would prefer to wait at the bus stop with their children at this age, yet they now have global access to relationships with strangers if they carry a smartphone. If you are one of the many well-meaning parents considering the educational benefits of a smart device for your toddler, consider that many 3 and 4-year-olds are already becoming addicted to technology, according to child and family psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish. Among the many symptoms of addiction are tantrums, aggression, obesity, and increased likelihood of mental illness.
Texas mom Brooke Shannon founded WaitUntil8th.org, an initiative that empowers parents to come together to say yes in waiting for the smartphone. When 10 or more parents in one grade at a school sign the petition, the pledge is in effect. It allows children to still have a phone that will call and text if a parent so desires, but it eliminates many of the dangers and distractions of the smartphone, all while creating unity among families so that no child feels like the odd one out. The more parents and families come together to wait, the more it becomes the norm. Even Bill Gates required his children to wait until high school. If anyone is aware of the benefits and the dangers of smartphone use, he qualifies.
2. Do Your Research
Technology changes quickly, and our children seem to stay on top of the newest, latest, and most popular changes faster than we can as parents. For us, it may take more deliberate and persistent seeking of information to remain aware of apps and trends that are almost effortlessly being integrated into our children’s lives. Snaps, Kiks, and Tiks, who can keep up? A police department in Oklahoma recently published a list of 15 apps that parents should be aware of and the dangers associated with them. Books like Tech Savvy Parenting and The Tech-Wise Family help keep us aware of the pitfalls and dangers associated with technology. But in the ever-changing world of tech, it is up to us as parents to remain vigilant in understanding the new dangers that continue to arise.
3. Set Boundaries and Invest in Parental Controls to Maintain Them
Talking about boundaries at the onset of giving children their first smartphones can set a precedent for its proper use and establish trust between parent and child. Children need to know that boundaries are part of normal, healthy tech use for children and adults alike, and they are not just a result of distrust. Andy Crouch, author of The Tech-Wise Family suggests preemptively making commitments to keep tech use in its proper place by all family members.
Set parameters of time so that checking isn’t just reactive or based on distrust, but it is part of the plan to develop healthy habits. According to Brian Housman, author of Tech Savvy Parenting, the average amount of time a child will play video games by age 21 is 10,000 hours. That equates to over 416 solid 24 hour days, or over 4 hours of play time every single day beginning at age 14. Setting time limits for overall tech use can play an important role in curbing addiction.
Invest in parental controls such as Bark, Disney Circle, Norton Family, Net Nanny, etc. which aid in filtering, limiting, and pausing the internet—arguably beneficial for the whole family.
Set expectations that, as a parent, you maintain the right to see their feed and know what they see. For Michigan father Scott Jenkins, this tip helped to save his 15-year-old daughter from abduction by human traffickers. What he discovered on her social media and email accounts led him and police down a path of investigating how a boy her age with many mutual friends was inadvertently connecting girls to the traffickers. She was just steps away from a “meetup.” Had he not discovered the communication in time he may never have seen his precious daughter again.
Be selective with who they have access to, places they go, friends, where they spend the night, and make sure you know the “house rules” for safe tech use wherever they go. If possible, work on them together as part of the “user agreement,” and provide pathways for them to be faithful in little things and earn more responsibilities. If agreement eludes you, remember it is worth having a temporarily disgruntled teen for the sake of avoiding at all costs the situation Scott Jenkins faced.
4. Name the Dangers
A premise to kids owning and using a smartphone should be for them to know the dangers themselves. This means discussing topics like mental health, pornography, relationships, and addiction. Invite their input; ask about any challenges they may have heard of. Perhaps if we don’t feel like our children are ready to have these conversations, it is a good indicator that they may not be ready to own a smart device, for these are the real-life issues they most likely will be encountering.
Preparation for possible issues paves the way for continued discussion and health assessment. Like many issues children face today, it is usually not a one-and-done talk. Keep the conversation open as part of normal, everyday life. One way we can implement this successfully is not to overreact, a surefire way to get kids to stop talking. They need to know that Mom and Dad are a safe place to come to. Even when action is required or consequences need to be given, keeping a cool head and facing the issue with your child encourages continued communication.
5. Be the Example
Do you want your kids to limit screen time? Do you want them to sleep at night uninterrupted by the lure of notifications? Do you want them fully present during family time and events? As in all things, we as parents need to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. We must lead the way when it comes to setting boundaries of time and safe tech use. Central plug-in stations where all devices, including the parents’, are kept show our kids that it isn’t just about setting restrictions on them but setting a precedent for a lifetime of responsible tech use.
We are not looking for rules for our children to follow but ways to prepare them to be successful adults and processes to set them up for success. There are no perfect systems, and there are no ways we can ensure 100% success. In fact, we can almost guarantee failure. At some point, our children will come across something online, whether accidentally or intentionally, that will harm them in some way. Lord willing, with blood, sweat, tears, and much prayer, we can minimize the pain, keep the conversation open, and help them navigate the waters.
Let’s face it. They’re not going to be happy with all the rules and boundaries we set, and in many ways, they will feel isolated if they are one of the few of their peers without certain social media accounts or unrestricted access. But aren’t we called to be in the world and not of it, not to love or be friends with the things of the world? (1 John 2:15-17) We must teach our children for them to understand, and we must live so they can watch an example they can emulate. It is not about sheltering them indefinitely or pretending we can hide under a rock from the dangers of this world. It is about providing the tools, training, and healthy boundaries that will prepare them to live in this world without getting lost in it or being lost to it. My prayer is, the more we are all aware and are all together, the more we can normalize keeping tech use under control.
Allowing a child to have a phone with no boundaries is akin to sending your 2-year-old outside alone to play near the street. Yes, they’re going to have to learn to live with it; we can’t shelter them forever. But in the same way we train them and protect them and prepare them to avoid being hit by a car, let’s do the same for our children playing in the middle of the virtual street. Get them out of the road, hold their hands, walk with them, and don’t let go until you sense that they have begun to learn how to navigate it well. It’s worth the time. It’s worth the effort. It may save your child’s life.
Hollie Gilman has spent the last 20 years momming, homeschooling her 3 almost-grown-and-flown children, and working with her husband of 23 years. She is a lifelong passionate learner in all things Faith, Health, and Leadership andloves to find the humor and heart in the common experiences so many busy parents share. Sheis currently enjoying her new life in the country (being a pretend farmer) just outside her hometown of Richmond, VA.Her work has been featured in Coffee+Crumbs, Richmond Family Magazine, and Parkway.org, and occasionally she spills her guts on her blog tryingtowalkandnotfaint.wordpress.com.
Photo Credit: Unsplash/KellySikkema