Photo courtesy  August de Richelieu 

The smartphones our children carry in their pockets today are more powerful than the computers that guided the first landing on the moon. Their connected lives are influenced by friends, family and others 24/7. Computer screens and gaming consoles have replaced the “kick the can” arena of yesteryear. And as parents, we must adapt — quickly. Follow these three guidelines and tips to better understand cyber safety and keep your kids secure from online risks.

Understand the technology, device or application
When you hand your child their first smartphone, you have a pretty good understanding of the device you are handing them. But can you say the same thing about your child’s Xbox or Playstation, or their tablet or computer? The question is, do you understand how each of these devices can communicate with others, what popular apps can do and how the device may be able to browse the web unmonitored? If we are providing our children with these devices, it is critical that we know what kids can do with them. Follow these tips to become technologically savvy:

  • Research: Turn to Google and search for the device name and “parenting” or device name and “parental controls” (i.e., “Xbox parenting” or “Snapchat parent controls.”) Visit Common Sense Media to learn about devices and applications that your child may use. 
  • Test Drive: Use the device yourself or at least be present when your child does. 
  • Set Up Parental Controls: You did the research, now put it into practice.  Every device and many services and applications have parental controls that allow you to monitor your child’s use. Often these controls not only limit the amount of time they are using a device or application, but may also include the types of applications or the ability to chat inside gaming systems.

Set and agree on expectations and conditions
Digital contracts between parent and child are best created before a device reaches your child’s hands, but it’s never too late to establish one. Capturing the child’s voice is critical; a cooperatively created document will be much more effective. Revisiting and revising the contract often will also demonstrate and honor that your child is growing. For example, an  agreement written when your child was 10 will change greatly by the time they are 12.  At any age, the contracts should include the following:

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  • When and for how long can a device or app be used? 
  • Where can devices be used? For example, are devices allowed in their bedroom? In the bathroom? Out of your sight? At the dinner table?
  • What family values govern how we act and behave online?
  • With whom may we communicate online?
  • What can and can’t we share?

Engage and participate
Watch, lean in — and over your child’s shoulder— when they are using technology. Download the same or similar apps. Share memes and stories that make you, and them, laugh. Listen to the RPG game storyline that they are spending hours playing. Ask questions not because you are judging but because you are interested. Participate and invite them into your digital and virtual world, modeling and sharing with them the choices you make over choosing to download one  app over another, or why you reply to this thread while ignoring another. 

As our children reach upper elementary and middle school, for the first time in their lives they begin to form relationships outside of those directed by their parents. This is just as true in the virtual world as it is in the physical world, but making sure they are prepared to make those choices becomes increasingly difficult behind screens and in an unseen virtual space. Privacy and a personal sense of self are a natural part of growing up, but being an engaged, participating parent is not denying them their privacy. It is helping them to make sense of the media, language, graphics and digital themes that are influencing their social lives.

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