Raising a family in the age of the internet requires new layers of awareness and communication.
Attention, fellow parents. An important topic has been on all our minds for a while now, and it’s high time we discuss it as a group. It’s not exaggerating to say the ramifications of these decisions are no less important than the safety and sanity of future generations.
Raising kids in a digital age
Sure, we can wax poetic about the childhoods we had … riding bikes … staying out until the streetlights came on … pulling the local TV guide out of the Sunday paper to browse the week’s shows … and while it would make great nostalgia, it doesn’t change the fact that kids today are growing up in a different society than we did. An entirely different world. One that is far more technological and interconnected on a global scale.
On top of that, the world today is more complicated — people live their real lives, but they also live digital lives in an online digital world. The virtual reality existence of Ready Player One does not feel too far off. And if your children are old enough to walk and talk, then no doubt you’ve already seen them use state-of-the-art technology with hardly a learning curve.
We could now launch into a seemingly endless list of the benefits and conveniences afforded by the digital age, but what do we do if our children are addicted to their tablet or smartphone? How do we instill healthy digital habits, and what should those habits be? What’s the appropriate amount of screen time? And how do we teach them to master a healthy relationship with a device that serves as their social network hub, their entertainment source, and their all-knowing encyclopedia, all in one? What if we’ve lost family time and want it back?
These are the conversations we should be having. The digital world is here to stay, and it marks a new era. We have the groundbreaking task of developing best practices to raise children in the age of the internet. We need to figure it out together, and come up with a sensible set of rules that keeps our kids safe, sane, smart, and successful.
Know the technology and get your bearings
Here’s one of my parental survival techniques: When a chaotic situation arises and the proper course of action is not evident, I go to the sage advice of flight attendants everywhere: Place the oxygen mask on yourself first before placing it on your child.
It goes against the unselfish attitude we develop as doting parents. Putting our own well-being before theirs is counter-intuitive, and only after many years of parenting did I come to understand the wisdom of it. We are their gateway to the world and we have to be grounded and balanced correctly before we can guide them.
This doesn’t mean we parents have to be fully entrenched in all the latest apps, SnapChatting and messaging and sending videos via Kik. No, it just means we should be knowledgeable on the function and capabilities of whatever apps our kids are using. Does the app have a chat dynamic to it? Does it offer in-app purchases? Is there a risk that inappropriate content may show up on it?
If we do our homework and achieve a passable understanding of the technological trends, then we can discuss them rationally with our children. We’ll earn their respect on the topic, and they will actually feel more secure when they see we are not clueless about their habits. Also, it helps us to make educated decisions on what is acceptable and age-appropriate.
Be the role model
You might call it overkill, but I push myself to act like a role model even when my kids are not with me. I’m driving down the freeway and my phone beeps. There’s no one else in the car. Do I check my phone? Because I’m a parent, I first think, would I want my kids to check their phones if they were in my place? The answer is no in that situation, so I don’t either.
Children are sensitive to hypocrisy. If we tell them not to do something, then they see us doing it, we lose their trust and our ‘letter of the law’ starts to disintegrate in their eyes. It’s fine to tell them the rules and explain how they should act, but it’s exponentially more effective to show them through our own behavior.
Let them notice that we never use the phone at the dinner table and that we never check it when we drive. Let’s be mindful of the urgency level we give our calls, texts, and emails when we are with them. We need to enact the etiquette we want them to adopt.
Predictable advice? Sure. Absolutely essential all the same? Yes.
If you worry about their schoolwork suffering, or if you wonder what apps they use and what sites they visit online, the healthiest route to these answers is to simply talk about it. With technology informing so much of our lives these days, verbal communication needs to increase instead of decrease. Kids might prefer texting, but developing verbal skills is more important than ever.
As with every topic when it comes to communicating with kids, it’s all in the approach. They are open and disarmed if they feel they’re not in trouble. Give positive reinforcement whenever they offer a truth they were initially reluctant to share. This can be tricky, because if your child is admitting they broke a rule, you’ll be tempted to discipline the action. But, looking at the long game, consider the benefits of having children whose go-to is to always tell you the truth. Your relationship moves from wrestling a confession out of them and bringing down the hammer to hearing the truth from them and discussing rationally why and how they transgressed.
And though they may never admit it, kids appreciate rules. Even if they gripe against them, rules give their world order and security. Do not be vague about what is acceptable to you — the bolder and clearer your rules are, the better. Also, let your children know that the rules will change as they get older, so it’s an ongoing conversation.
Set smart boundaries
Here’s where each of our households will have nuanced differences. I feel twelve is the appropriate age for my kids to get smartphones, but you may think ten is the right age, or sixteen. I could explain why twelve makes sense to me, but there’s no one right answer.
These decisions are as personal and unique as bedtimes, diet, and political party. You know what’s best for your children in terms of these details and what works best in your household. The core message to get across is that smartphones and computers are luxuries that can be easily abused, so limits must be set ahead of time.
Sit your children down and explain that the limits you are imposing are in the name of health, balance, and being a good person. Then, lay out clear rules regarding the following:
When it’s appropriate to use smart devices and when it’s not
The maximum amount of screen time allowed per day (remember that some homework requires online research)
Acceptable sites to visit vs. unacceptable sites
They also need to understand that everything they do online lives forever. A safe rule of thumb here is if you wouldn’t say it to your grandmother, don’t post it online.
In the likely event that they do not react well to having their screen time limited, have some suggestions on hand for how else they might spend their time. Again, while we, the parents of the world, may not agree on the details of this etiquette, we all MUST agree that rules need to exist and that our children must grow up with an awareness of healthy digital habits.
Keep in touch with the school
From the ages of five through eighteen, at minimum, our children’s lives are dominated by school. We are responsible parents if we partner with the school and get to know the teachers and administrators. We want the school staff to connect with us if they notice any change in our children’s behavior or drop in grades. If we’ve equipped our children with cell phones, we want to know that those devices are not causing any distractions in school. Open up the channels of communication with your children’s teachers.
Take parental control
Many carriers have family safety solutions, and even though some cost extra, the peace of mind is priceless. Plus, desktop tools exist from the likes of Disney, Net Nanny, uKnowKids, and others. A quick web search will bring all these products to your attention. Some parental-control software allows us to see the call and text history, which can be handy if we need extra visibility into what’s happening.
Find the software that makes the most sense to you, and use the parental controls to set up the appropriate limitations, such as:
The amount of time that your children can use their phones
The times of day your children can use their phones
Blocked phone numbers
The max data allowance
Website restrictions and apps you don’t want used
Avast provides family safety and location apps for phone carrier partners such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and other major carriers because we believe it is essential to empower parents to protect their families.
Unplug every so often
Ultimately, all our advice goes back to practicing what we preach. THAT is what teaches our kids (not to mention our peers) what life looks like according to our sense of balance. We all need to live in the real world MORE than we live in the digital world; and, sad to say, that can be a challenge for many.
The progressive march of technology moves quickly, far more quickly than our own behavioral development. As a result, just as we are getting used to the current trend, there’s already a new one gaining momentum. Some people expend all their energy on keeping up. It can be exhausting and disorienting to live in the world of cutting-edge technology. Heck, it can be exhausting and disorienting simply to talk about cutting-edge technology.
The key is, as with everything, balance. Yes, dive into the latest technology and learn as much as you can about it. But don’t let it rule you or your household.
We parents can get so busy keeping up with life and adulthood that we actually don’t have the luxury to “unplug.” Let’s agree here and now that this is only an illusion. Unplugging is deeply important to understanding life, the universe, and everything. Master the art of unplugging and being fully present in the moment with your family. Then, teach them to do the same.
If we can stay sensible throughout this evolutionary leap we’re experiencing in technology, the children will learn from our example, and they will continue cultivating the healthy balance we teach them. Let’s keep this conversation going.