How can I prepare my kid for digital independence?

Emma McGowan 16 Oct 2020

When it comes to ensuring that your kid makes the right choices in the digital world, communication is key

No parent loves monitoring their kid’s every move online — but it’s a necessary evil, kind of like driving underage kids around to all of their activities. You just have to do it until they’re a certain age.

And, according to the Avast Kids Online: Generation Lockdown survey, more than half of parents of kids under 12 expect their child to be digitally independent (meaning their online behavior is no longer constantly monitored by their parents) by the time they are 12 years old.

However, only 50 percent of parents have actual conversations about good and bad behavior online with their young children. And that’s worrisome. Just as you wouldn’t put your kid in a car at age 16 and say, “Drive, kid!” without ever talking to them about how to drive — and why speeding or driving intoxicated or looking at your phone while driving is dangerous — you can’t let a kid run around freely in the virtual world without first preparing them for how to do it. 

But while there are very clearly defined steps your family can take toward preparing a child for the type of independence that comes with a driver’s license, the steps toward preparing them for digital independence aren’t as obvious. Starting with: What is the appropriate age for digital independence?

Catherine Knibbs, a psychotherapist and author who worked in tech before she went into the mental health field, jokes that “probably age 25 to 28” is when young people are truly ready for digital independence, based on what we know about brain development. But, obviously, no parent is going to be monitoring their child’s online activity until age 25 — and no grown “child” would allow it. So with that in mind, Knibbs suggests that around age 11 or 12 — depending on the child — is a good point to start stepping away from constant monitoring of online activity. 

“It’s all about identity and identity goes with independence,” Knibbs tells Avast. "Pre-internet, kids worked out different identities in real world, tactile areas — so, for example, if they went to try martial arts or dancing, they’d have to visit those actual locations. Now they do all of that online.”

How to prepare your kid for digital independence

So how do you ensure your kid is going to make the right choices in the digital world? The same way you ensure they make the right choices in the physical world: By having a lot of conversations with them. Parven Kaur, the founder of Kids N Clicks, which is a web resource that helps parents and children thrive online, suggests making talking about the online world part of the “daily conversation” you have with your kids.

“For example, we tend to ask children about how school was and what they learned,” Kaur tells Avast. “The same way we need to regularly ask our children if they have seen or read anything interesting online. Ask them if they have seen any funny viral video, they can share with you. Ask them if they saw something that upset them. The point of these questions is to show your child that you are interested in their digital world.”

You can also ask their opinions about online issues that you’ve noticed yourself. 

“The key here is not to tell them about it but rather ask them what they know about the topic,” Kaur says. “For example, take a particular issue like misinformation and ask them what they know about it and how they think it is shaping their thoughts. Parents will be surprised to learn about what their child has to say about it. From there, develop the conversation and share your thoughts about it, too.”

Knibbs also recommends picking a time when there’s “a little bit of distraction” to have the conversation. She suggests when you’re going for a walk; when you’re in the car together; or when you’ve just finished eating. 

“Start with ‘I’m just wondering…’” Knibbs says. “And then ask something like, ‘How would you know if someone was trying to steal your data?’ That way, you’re making it about cybersecurity rather than cyber safety.”

That sideways approach also helps them develop critical thinking skills, which are essential for safe digital independence. According to Knibbs, those are the skills that will keep your kids from diving into conversations with adults who are trying to groom them, for example. 

“You need to help them differentiate between theoretical and real,” Knibbs says. “Ask, ‘How do you know they are who they say they are? How do you test it out? How would you do that in the physical world?’”

Finally, trust yourself. Parents are sometimes intimidated by online safety conversations with their kids because they have the impression that their kids know more than they do. But, Kaur points out, you know more about the world than they do — even if you can’t ever get the printer to work.

“Your child may have more technical skills than you do but as a parent you have more life experiences to share with your child,” Knibbs says. “Those life experiences extend to the digital world as well. For example, being able to think critically when seeing a piece of news online, showing compassion even online, understanding the effects of posting something and how it is viewed by others, and many more.”

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