If you think your world revolves around technology, your kids’ world probably has it worse! Between social media sites like Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook; gaming and streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube; and content sharing platforms like Etsy and Reddit, your child can access a vast online world.
With the freedom (and anonymity) these platforms provide, users can be subjected to a host of potential dangers.
As a parent, you want to protect your kid from the virtual threats they will inevitably face. But how do you balance keeping them safe with respecting their privacy?
Knowing the Dangers
It’s important to understand the dangers your child faces online in order to develop a strategy for keeping them safe. The Internet can be a dark place, and your child may stumble upon dangerous content without even meaning to.
Pornography, extreme violence, and disturbing images proliferate online, and can be jarring for your child. Online platforms can also expose kids to information glorifying self-harm or drug use, allowing dangerous ideas to take root and encouraging high risk behaviors. Hate speech often finds captive audiences and has been growing dangerously over the years.
Sites like Facebook have been criticized for allowing extreme groups to organize and disseminate hateful information, usually targeted at different minority groups. One report found that 113 of 221 designated white supremacist organizations (51%) had a Facebook presence. This shocking content can be both manipulative and deeply offensive, and is one of the important dangers to talk with your child about.
Young users are also vulnerable to cyberbullies and online predators. Teens often seek advice and support from peers online, which provides malicious internet users the opportunity to take advantage of kids seeking help.
A study from the Pew Research Center showed that even though teens strengthened friendships online, approximately half the participants felt pressure to exploit themselves for others’ approval and experienced negative emotions. While bullying isn’t new, cyberbullying allows aggressors to hide behind a screen, take advantage of online vulnerabilities, and exploit personal information.
Online sexual predators use many of the same tactics as cyberbullies. Virtual aggressors gain trust and manipulate teens, exploiting them for personal or intimate information or photos. Gaming communities and popular social media sites can be hunting grounds for predators, as detailed in a New York Times article. Predators disguise their identity, posing as fellow teens, in order to gain trust and exploit youth online. With all of these dangers, how and when should you limit your kids’ tech use?
When to Limit Tech Use
Limiting tech use shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing situation, and, more than anything, it should be a conversation. Imposing strict limits on phone or computer usage without giving your kid a reason is only going to invite resentment. Teens are tech savvy, and if they want to get around your barriers, they will find a way.
Starting an open and honest conversation with your teens by laying out your concerns and reasoning for introducing limits will create the opportunity for productive dialogue. Exactly when and how far you choose to limit their tech use is ultimately a personal decision, but here are some helpful guidelines to start with:
- No phones before bed. The blue light emitted from screens can interfere with sleep cycles, and make it harder to fall asleep. Consider discussing putting down the phone 20-30 minutes before bedtime.
- No overtly pornographic or dangerous sites. Discuss with your child the sites to avoid, and make sure they understand the importance of carefully navigating pop-ups and suspicious ads. Since you can’t stop your teen from viewing pornography 100% of the time, try talking to them about the difference between porn and real sexual situations, so they don’t pick up bad habits from the content they view online.
- No technology when studying or at the dinner table. Set clear expectations for tech-free situations and establish good habits and routines.
- No phones when driving. Distracted driving is immensely dangerous and teens are already at a higher risk of a car accident than adults. By removing distracting phones and other tech from the car, you can help protect your teen from a fender bender or worse.
How to Limit Tech Use
Now that you’ve set your limits, you need to go about enforcing them. One popular way is to set parental controls on the devices that your child uses. Using site blockers and filters to prohibit access to off-limits websites is an easy way to shield your child from pornographic or violent content. If your family uses tablets, iPhones, parental controls are already built in and easy to use. Of course, if your kids really want to find blocked content, they will find a way. That’s why having a conversation with them about the sites you plan to block is important; that way they understand the importance of your rules.
Another often-used option is to physically take away your kid’s phone. While this may seem like a natural instinct, we actually advise against it. Your teen will focus on the severity of the punishment and spend their time waiting to get their phone back, rather than reflecting on the behavior that led to the punishment in the first place. If your kid breaks one of your tech limitation rules, here are some punishment options instead of taking away their phone:
- Impose natural consequences. If they are late to dinner because they were online gaming, tell them that they need to make their own dinner that night. This way, the consequence (no dinner) is a natural result of the offense (missing dinner time), not a blanket punishment.
- Explain their misbehavior. Instead of immediately taking away the phone, sit them down and explain why they are in trouble in the first place. They may have forgotten your rule, felt peer-pressured to break it, or have a good reason for what they did. Keep the conversation honest and open, and emphasize that these rules are in place for their own safety.
- Have them make amends. Have them apologize for their mistake and address the consequences. If they ignored studying for a test because they were on social media, have them reach out to a tutor, apologize to the teacher, and make a plan to get their grades back on track.
Whatever limits you decide to impose, remember that they should be decided in conversation with your child. Taking their opinions into account includes them in the decision-making process, and will make them more likely to heed your rules. Clear, functional limits can protect them from online dangers, and open, honest communication will allow you to establish a trusting relationship.