Safely at Play in the Digital Funhouse
Last week I wrote about some of the dangers that kids face in today’s increasingly online society, primarily covering digital predators, pornography, sexting, and cyberbullying. This week’s blog is focused on what parents can do to protect their children while still allowing them the freedom to grow and the opportunity to experience all the good that technology has to offer. And there is a LOT of good. Today kids are able to learn, communicate, and interact on a much wider scale than ever before. It’s a great big tantalizing world, fully available to young people at the mere touch of a button. And that is a very cool thing, even if it’s sometimes a little bit scary for parents.
In a blanket attempt to protect their children, some parents may be tempted to take away their kids’ digital devices or to limit Internet use to schoolwork only. This is a bit like saying to your child, “We love you and we want to protect you, so you aren’t allowed to leave the house until you turn 18.” It’s just not a great idea. Firstly, it creates a form of social isolation because most young people engage with their friends and the wider world via technology nearly 24/7. One recent well-researched study suggests that American children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend nearly 11.5 hours per day engaged with various digital devices, with many of those hours spent engaging two or more devices simultaneously. As most kids are only awake for 15 or 16 hours per day, this means that somewhere between 71 and 76 percent of their day is spent living in the digital world. Secondly, the future will almost certainly demand a high level of familiarity (and neural development) in this area, and most parents would not want to handicap their child by disallowing this growth.
Even if you try to keep your kid offline, he or she can access the Internet at school, the library, a friend’s house, and elsewhere. So basically, if you think you’re going to separate your children from something as ubiquitous as the Internet, you need to think again, because it’s not going to happen. Your kids are going to get online and interact, and that’s the way it is.
What’s a Parent to Do?
As is the case with just about any aspect of your child’s life that may worry you, the best approach is an open, honest, non-judgmental conversation. This is especially useful with “birds and bees” issues such as online pornography. As mentioned in last week’s blog, children are being exposed to porn more often and at younger ages than ever before. In fact, exposure to porn is now something that every parent should anticipate and address early on. In other words, don’t wait to talk to your kids about porn until they are adolescents; nowadays discussing pornography in an age-appropriate way with much younger kids is an absolute necessity. With a seven-year-old you might explain the basics of what porn is, telling the child that it is not OK to view it and if he or she encounters it he or she should immediately call for a parent. With adolescents it is more important that they understand that what they see online is not real life; instead, it is fantasized and highly objectified imagery focused solely on the sexual act, with little to no consideration of the person’s safety (emotional or physical) or the joys of relationship intimacy as a part of sex.
Regardless of the child’s age, it is best if a parent works through his or her feelings about pornography before discussing it with the child, as a parent’s fear and/or anger-based responses can easily drive away the potential for valuable family-growth moments, while also having the potential to be highly shaming. In other words, there’s a big difference between saying, “Last night I noticed some pornography on your smartphone, and it makes me uncomfortable,” and saying, “Oh my God, this is disgusting, you’re grounded for six months and you’re going to a therapist this very instant.” Basically, parents need to remember what it was like when they were kids – curious and exploratory at every turn.
Of course, asking about your child’s online interactions may make him or her (not to mention you) uncomfortable, but if you explain that you want to have this discussion because you are worried about his or her safety and you want to make sure he or she is protected without you peeking over his or her shoulder 24 hours a day – something that no kid wants – your entreaties are likely to be received in a positive fashion. Plus, this open type of approach makes you and your child equal partners in working out the rules, guidelines, and any other protective measures implemented in regard to digital and social media interactions.
For most families, in addition to ongoing non-judgmental conversations about Internet usage, the most reasonable and effective way to protect children from inappropriate online content and contacts is to install parental control software on their computers and digital devices, including their smartphones. (You may not realize that this, but anything your child can do on his or her laptop, he or she can also do on a smartphone.) This said, I would strongly not recommend installing such software without first discussing it with your child. In fact, it is best to involve the child in any decision to purchase and install the software. Nearly always, given the choice of a perpetually hovering parent or a relatively unobtrusive software, a young person will choose the latter. If you can get your child to “buy in” to the protective software in this way, he or she will be much less likely to look for ways of circumventing it. Plus, your kids will appreciate your up-front honesty, even though the idea of their online activity being restricted and potentially reported to you is bound to be unappealing.
There are numerous parental control softwares designed to protect children in the digital universe. It is important to state here that none of these products is perfect. Most kids can find ways to access whatever it is they’re looking for – if not on their own devices, then on someone else’s. As such, parental control software programs should not be employed to enforce your will. They should instead be looked at as a tool of parenting that can help you to protect your children and family. Some programs are better than others. Features to look for include:
As of now (and be aware that software redesigns occur almost daily), the best programs appear to be:
It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad digital world, like it or not. And the kids of today are digital natives, meaning they were born into it and have never known life without it. For them, online interactions are as woven into the fabric of their daily lives as eating, sleeping, and breathing. Asking them to avoid the Internet is a non-starter of an idea, likely to be about as well received as circling the wagons and watching their every move. A better idea – as is the case when dealing with issues like smoking, drinking alcohol, and using drugs – is to engage your kids in an ongoing, non-judgmental discussion about the use of digital devices, making sure to include predators, porn, sexting, and cyberbullying as part of this conversation.
It is also important that parents not overreact to potential dangers. In reality, bad online experiences are much less common than fear-mongering media reports might have us believe. Yes, the virtual world is a new and potentially dangerous venue for social interaction, but no more so than real life. In actuality the behaviors engaged in by the kids of today are nothing new, nor are the dangers they occasionally face. The only real difference is their interactions are now happening online rather than in the back yard.
If you’re interested in learning more about Internet dangers and how to protect yourself and your family, The Safer Society Foundation is an excellent resource.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, Mr. Weiss has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. Mr. Weiss is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters. He is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and PsychCentral.com, writing primarily about the intersection of technology with sex and intimacy. He has provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.
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Last reviewed: 6 Jun 2013