Talking with parents about sexuality and online safety, it seems as if everyone just wants to know what button to push or what software to buy to ensure their child never sees porn, never talks to strangers online, and never posts provocative pictures. So let me say this from the get-go: There is nothing you or any other parent can do to guarantee your child will never do anything potentially dangerous online. There are, however, steps parents can take to drastically reduce the probability that a child will develop problematic internet behaviors.
In general, your goal should be to first focus on becoming a reduced-tech family. Putting more emphasis on the real world and less emphasis on the digital realm can help kids and teens put their value and energy into their real lives. It will lead to healthy use of the web—as a tool to connect with others and to learn about the world on an as-needed basis—instead of constantly trolling the cyber-sphere searching for the next thrill.
Here are 10 steps to get you and your family establish rules and practices for online safety:
- Get to know the technology, apps, and websites: So many parents I speak with don't know how to work apps, navigate a laptop, or turn on the Wii. Search YouTube for how-to videos and spend some time getting comfortable with the technology your child is using. You can also check out this App Guide for Parents, to fill you in on all the latest apps and how they work. Learn all about teens' use of social media sites and other online behaviors. Hint: Facebook is old news.
- Use existing privacy settings: Check the privacy and parental settings on all of your devices—desktop computers, laptops, phones, tablets, game consoles—and use them. Super savvy teens can bypass these if they work hard enough, but younger kids can't. And even older kids may be deterred or at least slowed down by them.
- Filter and monitor: Parents will tell me that they talked to their child about the internet, so they don't need to install monitoring software. Wrong! No matter how much you trust your child, it is essential to install software that can monitor tablets and smart phones (examples include this one and this one). Of course, there are ways for your child to get around these, which is why you need to continually check the devices and re-install the software as needed. Remember to be honest about your monitoring. Secretly recording a kid's internet usage will likely do more harm to the relationship than good for the child.
- Talk to your kids about digital citizenship: It's important for your kids to know that everything online is permanent. Everyone can see your "likes" and "favorites" as well as your comments on other photos, not to mention your own photos and videos. This permanency makes it important to consider your online reputation. Teens can start building a positive reputation online using LinkedIn and keeping all other social media profiles completely private. For example, most people keep their Twitter and Instagram profiles public and college admission committees will search applicants online and see those profiles. Encourage teens not to post sexy or wild photos of themselves, or at least not as a profile pic.
- Limit technology use: Try to limit tech and screen time by providing windows of time for when it is allowed and when it is not. You can also try a tech curfew, such as no internet after 7 or 8 p.m. Some families have instituted rules banning tablet or smartphone usage from 5-7 p.m., after which they allow a 30-minute window for responding to emails, messages, and texts, before having all devices turned off again at 7:30. There is also software which tracks time spent on Netflix, Facebook and games as well as applications like Microsoft Word and Excel, which is another way to monitor time spent on a computer doing recreational activities vs. homework activities. There is a new trend called "vamping," where teens stay up all night on social media while their parents think they're asleep. If this is the case in your home, you might have to disable the wireless router at night.
- Keep internet devices in public places: It's easy to sneak a peek at porn when at a friend's house or even in your own living room. However, it is hard to watch hours of porn every day or to chat with a pedophile online if the only available devices are in the living room or den. So it's a good idea to forbid laptops, tablets, or smartphones in bedrooms or bathrooms. They are not private devices, so they do not belong in private rooms. Here's the catch: You should be role-modeling this behavior. Try to have a "home" for all your devices, such as a basket or cabinet (and consider locking them away if need be). This sends the message that these devices don't belong to your child—they belong to you, the parent, and you are allowing your child to use the device, as long as it's used responsibly.
- Set rules with consequences. Digital behavior should be thought of as an extension of the self or a representation of the self. If you wouldn't do something in person, "in real life," you probably shouldn't be doing it online. Little kids understand this better than big kids who can think more abstractly and can rationalize their bad behavior online. One way to get your children to think about their online behavior is to have them sign a contract agreeing to the digital-behavior rules you set and outlining consequences if the agreement is broken. You can find a sample contract here.
- Gradually build autonomy: Your goal as a parent is to build autonomy within your child in almost every area: finances, emotions, social bonds, chores, and so much more. You want your child to be able to take care of himself or herself. The same is true for his or her cyber-self. Trying to block and/or monitor everything or eliminate technology completely isn't going to help your children regulate their digital behavior once they leave your house. That said, kids under 14 don't really have the ability (developmentally) to regulate themselves, so blocking and/or monitoring as much as possible is essential. As they get older, you can expand their cyber freedom as they earn your trust.
- Respect privacy: This step is perhaps the most important one, because it sends the message that your monitoring efforts aren't about stifling their privacy; they are about protecting your kids. Respecting their privacy can include providing physical privacy (e.g. always knocking before entering their bedroom); providing a private diary or voice recorder for them to record their thoughts and desires; giving them access to sexual health websites (you may have to manually allow these if you are filtering their web use); providing them with books about bodies and sexuality for them to read on their own (and making clear you are available to answer questions); and allowing them to have private conversations with their friends on the phone and/or private time in-person..
- Fill in with fun: Now that you've carved out some time where everyone won't be glued to their devices, fill in that time with fun activities. Model the behavior you want to see in your kids and the healthy attitude they should have toward technology and the internet. Make your fun time together as creative and stress-free as possible to help ensure that they don't shrug off the wonders of the real world and face-to-face relationships in favor of what they are missing at that moment online.
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