Can you answer all (or any) of the following questions?
• How often does your child view pornography online?
• How often does your child watch movies that are rated for an older audience?
• How often has your child played a video game that’s rated for an older audience?
• What kind of photos is your child taking and sending via electronics?
• How often does your child swear while sending text messages?
• How often does your child neglect exercising or homework because of electronic devices?
• How often does your child post inappropriate remarks on someone’s social networking site?
If you don’t know the answers to most of these questions, you’re not alone. Many parents have been feeling pretty frustrated about the rapid increase in portability and privacy features of electronic “mobile” devices, which make it easier for kids to hide information from adults.
It’s easy for a parent to want to scrutinize everything his child is up to while online, but who has the time (or energy) for that?
I’ve found that being frank with our kids, setting ground rules, and sticking to them has helped out tremendously with the technology situation in our household.
Rule #1: We don’t allow our kids to own any portable electronic devices that have Wi-Fi. Why? Because it’s harder to monitor what your child is surfing on the Internet if your child is doing it through a smart phone, a laptop computer, or another portable device. When our eldest headed to college, we bought him a laptop computer to help him study, but we also talked with him about the temptations of the Internet and the potential waste of time that can occur from spending hours surfing the Internet without any intention.
Rule #2: We place time limits on electronic gadgets. Both of our kids love playing video games, but they know they can play them only on the weekend and on school holidays during the school year. That way homework always comes first and so does exercise. (We do make the exception that if they want to do an exercise video game, they can do that for up to one hour a day, as long as they’re exercising the entire time.)
Rule #3: Cell phones privileges are earned. Once our kids became fifth graders, we bought a prepaid cell phone that sat in our drawer most of the time. The kids could only borrow it when they were heading to an activity, a friend’s house, or to an outing with a friend. The cell phone was meant for us to be able to get a hold of our child and for our child to get a hold of us.
Once they were in middle school, we bought our kids each a prepaid cell phone. We put 1,000 minutes on it a year, and then they were responsible for adding minutes if they wanted more. One of our kids quickly discovered that he could burn through those 1,000 minutes too quickly if he texted too much.
When our kids reached high school, we bought them a cell phone with a service plan. We opted to find one that had unlimited texting since that was what our teenagers were most interested in doing.
Rule #4: We never let our kids have a computer in their bedrooms. We have a desk in a public area so that we can easily see what they’re doing. We also set up parent controls to limit which web sites they could access. Some computers have parent controls built into their models while others require special software. Websites that review which software is best include ConsumerSearch and PC magazine.
Rule #5: We “friend” our kids online. We insisted that if our kids wanted to set up a social networking page (such as Facebook or MySpace), they had to include me or their dad as a friend until age 16. We promised not to post anything on their wall, and we explained that we would only monitor what was going on with their page to keep them safe. That way we could also see if anyone was starting to cyberbully our child as well if our child was starting to cross a line.
Being overexposed to violence, sex, inappropriate language, and inappropriate actions don’t help our kids grow up well. They need boundaries, and too many of our electronic gadgets are blurring the boundaries without parents realizing it. It’s time for parents to “get real” about the dangers of mobile technology and start creating a balance so that they have real face-to-face time for family and friends.
1. Amanda Lenhart, Kristen Purcell, Aaron Smith, and Kathryn Zickur, Social Media & Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults, (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2010).
2. American Academy of Pediatrics, “Talking to Kids and Tweens about Social Media and Sexting,” June 1, 2009.
4. American Public Health Association’s 138th Annual Meeting and Exposition, “224927: Hyper-Texting and Hyper-Networking: A New Health Risk Category for Teens?” program presentation description, November 9, 2010.