If you have a child between the ages of 11-18, you are fully aware of how intertwined their real and virtual lives can become. It starts with deciding what the appropriate age for kids to have their own computers and/or cell phones. For many families, the right age is just as kids hit middle school (11-12). While your child is out and doing things independently, this is not the time to let your guard down. There are very real dangers to allowing your tween/teen have his own cell phone and/or computer. Don’t panic just yet. There are things you, as a parent, can do to help your child avoid some of the biggest dangers.
- Start at home. From the time your child is able to navigate a mouse, have your home’s computer in a general living area. Do not allow your child to wander off on his own with a tablet or laptop. From a young age teach him how to search for things safely (set filters as well). As your child enters his tweens/teens, make sure he only has access to the one, central family computer that anyone can see at any moment. Check the history often.
- It’s not bad to be curious. But, it can be dangerous. Kids who have their own email accounts on sites like Yahoo, Live or Hotmail WILL receive emails about penis enlargements, lonely women and so on. Know your child’s accounts and passwords. Additionally, a child doing an innocent internet search on their first name is likely to yield results that are less than wholesome.
- Do whatever it takes to stay ahead of your child. Your child should not be the one telling you how to use your phone or work online. Be aware of the latest trends before, or at least, at the same time your child is.
- Is texting your problem? Reports how that younger users use texting far more than Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram. Do you know with whom your child is exchanging texts? Is your child using his phone camera to send pictures?
- Know your child. If he is likely to be the target of bullies (cyber or otherwise), accept it and address it. Give him strategies to handle bullies. If bullying is a serious problem, shut down your child’s cyber-accounts, contact school officials and, if needed, get him counseling. The bullies we, as parents, used to know now have 24/7 access to your child if you allow it. If your child does not have problems with bullying, be sure they know to tell you if they see/suspect a classmate is being bullied. Take action if they do tell you something.
- Consider a contract. When you provide your child with a phone, make it clear to them that it is NOT their phone rather, it is a phone you’re letting them use. Insist on access to passwords. Be willing to revoke phone privileges should the need arise.
- Cell phones and driving teens. Blech . . .it’s a terrible combination! Well before your child gets a learner’s permit, start talking about cell phones and driving. Remember that you’re setting the example. Make rules and enforce them. You do not have to implant a GPS chip in your teen’s neck but, you do need to check your bill. You can see when messages were sent, read or received. Try a one-warning approach. If you do this, be prepared to follow-up with a no driving for “x” period of time if your teen violates the rules.
- You thought cell phones were scary? Once your teen is old enough to date, you have a two new issues to discuss – sexting and photographs. If you’re not ready to discuss these things you can either forbid your child from dating or suck it up and make yourself do it. You’re not alone! Do what you have to to make your child understand that NOTHING on the internet (phone or computer) goes away despite claims made by sites like Snapchat and others. Do your best (it’s hard) to impress upon them that at 30 or 40 they will be people who do not want high school images or texts to come back and haunt them or prevent them from getting a job.
- Stranger danger is real. As many as 30% of teenage girls are ready and willing to meet with people they have only met online. Often, these girls are targeted after they have posted pictures that are not age appropriate. It is important that parents of girls and boy talk about these kinds of statistics and how to avoid being a statistic.
- Is your tween/teen exhausted, fat or sad? Too much screen time might be the cause if you answered yes one or all of these. While being able to access the internet via phone, tablet, laptop or computer appears to connect you with the world, it can easily lead into your child living in an isolated world with little contact with the real, live people around them. If you find this to be your situation, set strict limits on screen (any screen) time and do what you must to get your child up, moving and interacting again.
We live in a brave, new world. We grew up making prank phone calls, carrying an extra $.50 to make a phone call and figuring out how to save a beloved show to VHS. Now, we are marshaled to monitor our children who have grown up with constant internet access, watching commercial-free television and who carry powerful computers in their hip pockets. It’s a challenge. It’s up to us, the parents, to stay curious and willing to learn. If we do our job, we can keep our children safe.