No one ever said being a parent was easy—at least, no one we know of. Smartphones and computers haven’t made parenting any easier, despite all that they’ve done to make us more organized, connected, and informed. Access to better, faster, cheaper technology has instead complicated parenting. Especially when it comes to keeping our kids safe online.
Parents have different styles, as well as views about what’s appropriate and inappropriate for their kids. And that’s okay. We’re not here to tell you what your kids should or shouldn’t do when they’re online. We think the advice below makes good sense whatever your parenting philosophy.
Know Your Kids
No matter how great our tech gets at letting us stay in touch wherever we go, it’s no replacement for face-to-face conversation, especially between parents and kids. Talk to your kids in person about what they’re doing online—not only at home, but when they’re with friends and at school. This gets tougher when they’re older, but it’s important to make it happen when you can.
Know what devices they use, what online games they play, and what social networks they may be part of. Find out whether those networks are wide-open public ones, or limited to a close set of known friends. Be aware that a network that includes friends-of-friends can easily connect a person to hundreds, even thousands of strangers.
And be alert to when your kids are trying to talk to you, too. Parents aren’t immune to getting wrapped up in their own online worlds.
Teach Good Online Behavior
We teach our kids to say please and thank you, to look twice before crossing the street, and to not talk to strangers. There are a corresponding set of common-sense behaviors we can teach our kids (and follow ourselves) that can help them keep themselves safe, no matter where they are or how technology changes:
● Avoid sharing personal information like full name, address, phone number, and ID and account numbers online. Kids should ask a parent before sharing info like this, so the parent can be sure the information is truly needed and on a secure site. (Look for “https” not “http” at the start of the website address.)
● Use effective passwords to safeguard access to sites and accounts you use.
● Don’t assume that everything you read online—whether in an email, a website, or social media—is true. When an email or a post sends you to a webpage with instructions to do this or that, it’s a smart move to skip the link and navigate there on your own (by doing a web search for the organization or individual).
● Generally speaking, block any app or website request to know your location. Kids should ask their parents before turning on these services. And don’t arrange to meet anyone you meet online. If someone asks, tell a parent or other responsible adult.
● Don’t assume people online are who they say they are or are pretending to be.
Just as you set rules and limits for bedtime and playtime, you can and should set appropriate rules and limits for your kids’ use of screens and the internet. What that means will vary according to their ages, and your family’s views. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a useful media planning tool that lets you customize a plan for your family and your individual kids. And the Family Online Safety Institute has some great cards you can use to establish guidelines when setting your child up on a new device.
Use Both Tools and Trust
Speaking of tools: They’re great! Parents can’t be with their kids every second, especially as they become older and more independent, so it’s helpful to be able to know what they’re up to and provide them with built-in boundaries when you’re not around.
Trust is important, too. As your kids enter their teen years, they will not only want more independence—they’ll need it, in order to start making their own decisions and learning from their own mistakes. Give them a little more freedom and access to the honors system when you can. And make sure they know exactly which monitoring tools and procedures you are planning to use, so they aren’t blindsided when you do use them.
As of this writing, major providers Google and Apple both offer tools to help parents manage their kids’ online use:
● Google Family Link. “The Family Link app from Google can help you set certain digital ground rules. You can create a Google Account for your child that's much like your own, and do things like manage apps, keep an eye on screen time, and remotely lock your child's device.”
● Apple’s Family page. “Choose which apps they can use. Manage their in-app purchases. Keep them safe on the internet. Make sure what they see is appropriate.”
The tools and settings parents can use to manage online access change frequently, so it’s worth checking around to see what’s available right now—both for your child’s device and your shared family systems.
Be an Online Role Model
Using all the talks and tools above won’t make much difference to kids if they see their parents doing exactly the opposite. Be a good online role model by using technology responsibly yourself. And try to unplug as a family several times a week: Go for a walk, spend time in the backyard or park, or play a board or card game. And try for as many all-family meals as you can fit in during the week—device free, of course.