Is it possible to balance your kids’ need for independence with their need for protection in online apps, chats, social media and games?

The Nature of the Danger

The evidence is clear when it comes to social media and health: From body image on down, Facebook’s own recently published internal research shows negative effects on teens. And there are the passive downsides of all screen time: Every minute you spend looking at a screen is not a minute you spend engaging with the natural world or interacting face to face with other humans. Most parents know that the cost of losing those other activities can range from poor social skills to obesity to serious mental illness.

Ryan Toohil is the chief technology officer of Aura, a digital security company that recently bought the Portland-based parental control and filtering app Circle. He points out another danger for kids online: identity theft. “A 2020 report by Javelin Strategy & Research shows social media users are 30% more likely to be hit by identity theft, with Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram users the most likely,” says Toohil. “And, because children lack the knowledge and are not as cautious about the websites they are visiting, they are 51 times more likely to face identity theft and data breaches compared to an adult.” 

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Nick Ladd, D.O., a child and adolescent psychiatrist, says that many of his patients are recovering from some form of sexual abuse, predominantly from people in positions of authority who are in already in the child’s life — not necessarily a stranger online. However, Ladd does see patients who want to change schools because they had a normal middle school relationship, and like normal middle school relationships, it went sour after a few months; but the breakup is complicated by previously sent nude photos. Middle-school revenge porn is now, terrifyingly, a thing.

What Can You Do?

Treat the Internet the way you’d treat the physical world.

“Approach going online through a browser, app or a massive multiplayer online game as though your child is leaving the house,” Ladd advises. “What do you want to check on and educate your child about before they go out? When do you want to be with your child when they are out of the house?”

“Make sure that you approve any app before a child downloads it and that you know the password if it is password protected,” he adds. Exploring a game or an app together can be a bonding opportunity if you discuss it openly. 

Ali Garfinkel, a mother of three in Portland, decided to let her oldest use TikTok early on, after exploring it together. “But it was before we really knew the depths of it,” she says. As far as she can tell, her daughter’s use remains relatively safe, but her experience points out a sticky point for parents: If you are not a tech professional, it can be hard to look at an app or game and decide whether it is likely to remain safe as it develops. Common Sense Media lets parents vote on whether video games, movies, and apps are appropriate for a given age. “This is a great resource,” Ladd says, “because you can read multiple perspectives and get a sense for which reviews are written by people whose values align with yours.”

Teach your kids to respect their boundaries and make them aware of their resources. 

To help your kids develop cyber street-smarts around online crime, check out the helpful articles on Circle. Many boundary-setting skills, though, are just as useful online as in physical settings. Give examples of the kinds of questions online predators (or middle school dating partners) might ask, and the kinds of threats they might use to get kids to comply. “Check in with your children about what happened when they went online just like you would check in about their day at school,” says Ladd.

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Teach your kids to be good bystanders, online and in person. “Teach this as a part of being kind and brave,” says Ladd. “Teach about the roots of bullying. For kids taking on too much, remind them that learning when to turn to an adult or professional for help is sometimes the most helpful thing.” He adds that it’s also worth providing resources like the national suicide hotline (1-800-273-TALK) and the text suicide hotline (741-741). 

Set limits around digital time, and model off-screen time.

Parental control apps like Circle have tools for helping limit screen time and you can even schedule the house’s Internet to be down at certain times. Then there’s the hardest one: modeling healthy behaviors. “If they see you always on a computer or cell phone, they are going to listen to your actions and not your words,” says Ladd. If modeling healthy screen habits is hard for you, there is good news here, too: Seeing you struggle to do a healthy thing is massively helpful for your kids. No good habit is too small to be worth cultivating; the hardest step is always the first one.

Listen to your kids.

What if you find yourself in pitched battles with your teens and tweens over online boundaries? Ladd has two pieces of advice. First is to work toward adult independence. “Try to figure out where your child is and where you want them to be as a healthy adult. Sit down with your child and talk about creating a path towards more developmentally appropriate independence based upon how successful they are with current independence.”

Secondly, make sure you are listening to your kids. “Kids, like all humans, will not listen to someone if they do not feel heard by that person,” he says. 

All of this is hard, for parents and for kids. And the pandemic has made it harder. When things fall apart, rebuild with compassion, beginning with compassion toward yourself.  

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