Of course children are spending too much time “plugged in”. Of course students are distracted by the web and have trouble staying on task. Of course the web is filled with inappropriate content that is not good for children of any age. However, if you give your kid access to the internet without any guidance, guidelines, or restrictions, you are somewhat responsible if they are irresponsible online. This article will help put your mind at ease, and it will help in guiding your children towards a safer digital experience.
Most schools have just completed the Open house/Parent Night/Parent Teacher Interview time of year, which provides a perfect opportunity to address parental concerns regarding their children’s online behavior. I often wonder if the technology switch was turned back on the first day of school, causing students to binge on their devices, which results in parental concerns about school policies regarding internet usage. Or could it be, children are using technology without an academic purpose for the two month summer holiday without restrictions leading to negative behaviors which carry over into the school year and impact their academic performance? I am certain that the root of this issue is a blend of these two scenarios.
The reality is that most children do spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen and too much screen time can have dramatic consequences on brain development in youths. In Psychology Today, Dr. Victoria Dunckley reports that “internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control” (1). Hence The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids under 2 years old not to watch any TV and those older than 2 watch no more than 1-2 hours a day of quality programming. Obviously there is a huge gap between how much time is recommended for children to be online per day and the reality of children spending large quantities of time in front of a computer screen. So what can a parent do when their kid is spending more and more time online at school in One to One programs, needs to complete homework online while leveraging technology as a tool, interacting socially with friends online, or playing video games? Here are a few tips:
1. Start with a Discussion: Parents makes the biggest impact on their child’s safety on the internet and having an open and honest conversation about internet usage is the best place to start. The chances are that your child has concerns of their own, but they just have not had a chance to talk share their concerns with you. This is a link to a Common Sense Media Families Survey that provides a great starting place for dialogue between parents and their children to help establish common ground rules and clarify areas of concern that you may never have discussed.
2. Develop a Family Contract: The most important thing your child needs to understand, prior to signing a family contract, is that these devices are yours, you own them, and you are “lending” these devices to you children for them to use. Too often parents see iPads and Laptops as belonging to their children, kids and feel powerless to control them. This is the root of many frustrations and miscommunications between parent and child. If your child cannot agree to this central reality, then they cannot have a devise in your house. You are simply not giving them the tool to hurt themselves with without guidance that will ensure their safety. Common Sense Media also provides some great resources for Family Contracts for children in grades K-5, 6-8, 9-12.
3. Keep Technology Public: Restricting the use of technology to the public spaces in your house is one of the best decisions you can make. I would also suggest you have a charging station in the living room or kitchen that the devises returns to after use, without exception. There is nothing that your child needs to do on the internet in private, quiet yes, private no.
4. Set Screen Times Limits: As a result of the discussion you have had with your child, it will be evident that there are a multitude of ways that they they use technology. Whether it be gaming, social networking, instant messaging, reading, or watching television, this all qualifies as screen time and needs to be limited. (Reading on a Kindle does not qualify as screen time as it is not a backlit screen) Splitting up the screen time into sections is also recommended with no one stretch extending beyond and one hour.
5. Parental Controls: Just as your child leverages technology as a tool to enhance their learning, so can you as a parent to help ensure their safety online. Enabling Parental Controls on Mac, PC, and Mobile Devices (IOS 7, IOS 8, Android, Windows Phone) as well as using the new iTunes feature, Family Sharing, can help prevent your littles ones from accidentally stumbling upon inappropriate content and avoid costly in-app purchases. Parents Around is an app that takes monitoring and filtering one step further by providing age appropriate templates for TV Shows, Apps, and websites, and might be worth investing in if you feel you need to do more.
6. Share in the wonder that is the Internet: The internet is arguably the most important invention since the Gutenberg Printing Press and not experiencing this amazing wonder with your children is a lost opportunity. Of course you read with your kids and pick out books for them when they are too young to do so for themselves, so take a chance and experience the web in much the same way with them. Share YouTube videos, game, surf, communicate, learn, and most importantly explore with them. The Web is central to the world they were born into, exist in it with them.
As an active parent, you are the most important filtering software available, but trust is essential. Yes there may be a rare occasion where something inappropriate pops up on your son or daughters device, but this is less likely to happen if you take the steps mentioned above. The positives of you child having access to technology and the internet far outweigh the negatives, as they are essential tools which redefine their educational experience in the 21st Century.
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