“We need to talk.”
Say those four little words to your child and watch the defensive arm waving, extreme eye rolling, and avoidance behavior begin. Her dismay will only slightly diminish when she discovers that you just want to discuss internet safety.
Nobody wants their favorite activities limited or monitored. But just as you would never allow your child to pop into a stranger’s home and strike up a conversation, letting her go unmonitored on the internet, even if she is sitting a mere few feet from you, puts her at risk. Literally millions of unknown people are floating around the web with her, and sadly, she could become the target of cyberbullying, exposed to sexual solicitations, or subjected to material that should never be seen by a child.
So tune out those exasperated sighs and feigned looks of boredom; this conversation needs to happen. Below are some key issues that should be addressed before your child is released from the dreaded “talk” and allowed to dip her toe into that expansive online ocean.
House rules aren’t just for video games.
Be unequivocal about what is and is not permitted concerning online activities. Spell out the basic guidelines — literally. Post the rules near the family computer, making it clear that they apply to mobile devices as well. Some example expectations are:
• Passwords need to be kept private from everyone except parents. Sharing a password with a friend at school could lead to some very uncomfortable and completely avoidable situations.
• Chat rooms are off-limits. No matter how cool he might seem, there is no guarantee that that nice 13-year-old boy isn’t actually a 43-year-old predator.
• Interaction with anyone who isn’t a real-world friend or acquaintance should not be permitted. Never share personal information — such as name, age, address, birth date, or phone number — with anyone other than teachers, actual friends, or relatives.
• No photos of any kind — selfies, family portraits, or even adorable pet poses — should ever be shared with strangers. Likewise, no images from unknown persons, no matter how cute the caption, should ever be downloaded.
• Never open a message from someone you don’t know. It could contain a virus or, worse, an inappropriate image or message that can never be unseen.
• Under no circumstances should meetings with strangers be arranged, and any request by an unknown person online needs to be reported immediately.
• Be kind and expect others to be kind in return. Bullying behavior should never be tolerated.
Pretend you can see them, even if you can’t.
Your child needs to believe that you are right there with him as he browses through that virtual online shopping mall of games, discussions, and data and that even if you aren’t actually there in the aisle, you are at least watching carefully through the shop window. Housing the computer in a common room, rather than in your child’s bedroom, keeps everyone honest.
You can monitor actual time spent on the computer and what sites he is visiting, or, at the very least, give the appearance that you are doing both. And don’t turn the computer toward a wall with the belief that you will read guilt on his face if he visits a prohibited page; he probably has a better poker face than a Vegas card shark.
Get help from the very devices you are attempting to supervise; use parental monitoring software.
Many parental control packages, such as Qustodio, Net Nanny, and Circle with Disney, allow parents to drastically up their internet monitoring game. By matching category words such as “porn” or “violence,” offensive content can be blocked from your child’s devices. Several free parental control programs are available, but check to see what features are included. Most systems will allow you to block questionable material from regular websites, but the best ones also allow content filtering of “secure” sites, those with https in the url. If you don’t know what that is, trust me, your teenager does, and without https filtering, he can easily bypass your monitoring system.
Childhood is limited and screen time should be as well.
Too much time spent on electronic devices puts your child at risk of developing anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and weight issues. Studies show that even children can become internet addicts, complete with the emotional turmoil, lying, and loss of interest in other activities usually associated with adult addictions. Plus, the less time your child spends online, the less chance of stumbling upon something or someone that should be avoided.
Surf together, dude.
Joining your child online will provide you with a firsthand look at his interests, will increase parent/child contact and communication, and will provide a shared activity that is actually quite fun. Let him take the lead. Play a game together, watch his favorite music videos, look up weird facts about Game of Thrones. Maybe you can even get him to explain what the heck a Fortnite is and why it is spelled incorrectly.
Your child does not need her cyberspace space; know all the passwords.
Full transparency is key here, so let your child know she will be monitored. Get the passwords for everything — devices, gaming platforms, social media sites — and check regularly to see what is being played and posted. Shady shenanigans are much less likely to happen if everyone knows that at any moment the computer can be frisked.
Remind your child that internet exchanges never really go away and nothing is truly private. Future college officials or prospective employers could uncover something that seemed funny at the time, but might shut the door on some exciting opportunities.
Dial back the phone usage.
Make sure your child is aware that even photos from so-called self-destructing sites can be screen-shot and then shared. And restrict the ability to make in-app gaming purchases.
Your child could spend literally hundreds of dollars on magic coins and shield-protected-high-jumping-flame-throwing powers in a very short amount of time. Fortunately, some of the parental control apps that can be used on tablets or commuters can be used on your child’s phone device as well, so make use of those features.
It’s a multiplayer household, so set a good example.
If you want your child to spend time focusing on activities that don’t involve electronics —face-to-face conversations, crafts, exercise, nature, meals, personal hygiene — make sure you do the same. Get up from the computer, put down the phone, and get busy enjoying a life unplugged.