Since the days of chatrooms, AOL Instant Messenger, and Myspace, parents have been concerned about their kids’ online activity. Keeping kids safe while they are online is even more critical today than in the early days of the Internet.
The news of the potential ban of TikTok has increased this fear in many parents. Ever-present data trackers follow every click of kids who still ride in car seats. Add the increased online time children will experience with distance learning, and parents have a lot to navigate.
I want to stop short of telling parents what to do here. However, I do want to provide my perspective as a professor of digital marketing and as a dad.
First, don’t just put up boundaries. Teach your children how to wisely navigate the internet.
The worldwide web is, well, a web. It’s interconnected through advertisements, external links, and unexpected posts. Even if your son or daughter follows a well-worn path to something as innocuous as an educational video, unexpected things can pop up. This presents significant challenges for site blockers. And can make you play “whack-a-mole” to find out which sites to block next.
Most kids have multiple devices (desktop/ laptop at home, mobile device, school devices, etc.). Or they have a friend with a device without the same limitations as your family. Simply playing defense is a losing strategy.
Instead, engage with your children on what wise behavior on the internet looks like. Teach them
- Don’t click on links they’re unfamiliar with
- How to verify the truth of what they read
- The dangers of too much screen time
- How to model Christ-like behavior online – even when no one is watching
It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t block websites or have rules. But remember how easy those rules are to break, even when your child doesn’t mean to break them.
Second, teach them about the permanence of the internet.
Because we are behind a screen we are often away from the physical presence of others. We frequently get a sense of security and anonymity when we engage online. In the early days of the internet, we limited these fears to our financial interactions online. Every click, retweet, download, scroll, etc. is tracked.
Photos are easily hacked, business websites are breached, and social media accounts can enable tracking across apps. The old phrase that your mom might have told you, “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to be printed in the newspaper” is more true than ever. Teaching your kids about online privacy can actually be a useful example during the conversation about the importance of guarding our hearts – even when no one is watching.
Additionally, it’s important to share with your kids how words and pictures shared on the internet have a way of being archived in the future. Context is lost and it’s incredibly easy for your content to be misinterpreted – even if your intent wasn’t bad. When your son or daughter says something mean about someone else, that cyberbullying event lasts so that its victim sees it regularly. When you share a hateful, divisive political meme – it is archived. Your family, friends, and business associates can easily make judgments about your character – even if your opinions have changed.
Jesus shares in Matthew 15:19,
“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.”
Sounds pretty accurate to a lot of our social media accounts, doesn’t it?
Third, don’t just tell your child about proper online behavior, show it.
Far too often adults are guilty of failing to align our words, our beliefs, and our actions. I don’t know about your household, but it’s crazy how my kids always seem to be there at the least convenient moments when I’m out of alignment. Even when I don’t think they’re noticing. I recently read a fascinating and quietly heartbreaking study cited by The Atlantic about this.
In the early 2010s, researchers in Boston surreptitiously observed 55 caregivers eating with one or more children in fast-food restaurants. Forty of the adults were absorbed with their phones to varying degrees, some almost entirely ignoring the children. The researchers found that typing and swiping were bigger culprits in this regard than taking a call. Unsurprisingly, many of the children began to make bids for attention, which were frequently ignored.
A follow-up study brought 225 mothers and their approximately 6-year-old children into a familiar setting and videotaped their interactions as each parent and child were given foods to try. During the observation period, a quarter of the mothers spontaneously used their phone, and those who did initiated substantially fewer verbal and nonverbal interactions with their child.
Let’s get real– the Covid-19 lockdown has made this so much harder.
My working remotely, particularly with kids in the house, has been incredibly tough for my kids. They always knew mom and dad worked. But now that they’re with us all day, they see us on devices more and more. Trying to explain why mom and dad can’t play with them and need to spend time on the computer just doesn’t compute. It wouldn’t for me either. It’s been tougher than ever for us to draw effective boundaries between work time and family time. Days have run into nights with innumerable emails, Zoom meetings, and other work. It’s been sadly ironic that family time seems harder than ever when we’ve all been under one roof all day together.