IF THE WEB were an amusement park attraction, you’d have to be 10 feet tall to ride—it's terrifying enough for adults and a funhouse of horrors for kids, from inappropriate content to unkind comment sections to outright predators.
And yet! The internet also affords opportunities to learn, to socialize, to create. Besides, at this point trying to keep your kids off of it entirely would be like keeping them away from electricity or indoor plumbing. They’re going to get online. Your job is to help them make good choices when they get there.
Yes, there are parent-friendly routers you can buy, and software you can use, to limit your child’s access to the internet. But it's more important to create a mental framework that helps keep your kids safe—and teaches them to protect themselves.
Adjust as Needed
One reason it’s so hard to offer concrete rules governing kids and the internet is that no two kids are alike. It’s like keeping kids safe after homecoming. Some might just need a curfew, others a breathalyzer.
Think of sending your kids out into the internet, then, in the same way you think about sending them out into the world. Different age groups require different amounts of oversight; even within a specific age, different kids have different inclinations, and with them different needs.
“You raise your kids all the time, and then one day you send them to the store on their own,” says Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. “And you have no idea what they’re going to see between your house and the store, but you hope that you’ve raised them in a way that they can deal with whatever it is.”
As muddied a picture as it sounds, at least some legal guidelines exist. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, established in 1998, creates safeguards like keeping children off of social media under the age of 13. (Facebook has recently attempted to skirt that with a version of Messenger aimed at kids six and older.) Even so, millions of kids under 13 have found their way onto Facebook anyway, often with parental consent. Don't give in!
“You do have parents who want their kids on Facebook, so that they can communicate with grandma. They’ll actively encourage the kids to lie about their age,” says Stephen Balkam, Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. “We’re trying to teach good digital citizenship to kids. If the first experience they have is to lie to get onto a platform, that’s about the worst kind of modeling you can offer.”
The more you instill that sense of structure in the early years, the more likely the dividends will pay off later.
“As your teen gets older, they’re going to be far more likely to find ways around any parental controls that you put on there,” Balkam says. Your goal, then, is to make sure that by that point, they don’t need them anymore anyway.
Bonus tip: Kaiser suggests that if and when you do give your child a smartphone or tablet, you help them through the setup process, making sure they know how to create a strong password, and establishing ground rules over who can and can’t download apps. “You create that kind of environment where there’s permission being asked,” Kaiser says.
Be an Example
Take a good look in the mirror: “Kids will far more do what you do as opposed to what you say,” Balkam says. “We get complaints from kids now that they can’t get their parent’s attention because they’re always on their laptops, or dad always pulls out his phone at the restaurant.”
Sound familiar? Probably! But don’t fret. Think of it, instead, as an opportunity to upgrade your own digital habits. That goes not just for time spent on devices, but how you maintain them as well. Dave Lewis, global security advocate at Akamai Technology, says that keeping up with standard security practices, like updating your software in a timely manner, pays dividends for the whole family.
So get the kids involved. Let them know what pictures you’re sharing of them, and take down any that they consider too personal or embarrassing. Make your rules about gadget usage apply to the whole family. Help them when they run into trouble, so that they can go on to help their friends. “Older teens say that their friends come to them seeking help when things happen online, as opposed to going to their parents,” Kaiser says. “So we’ve been advocating teaching your children to help their friends, if they experience a problem, in a proactive way.”
Bonus tip: This one’s gonna hurt, but keep your phone out of your bedroom. Not only will it make you less vulnerable to cries of hypocrisy when you confiscate your kids’ devices at 10 pm every night, but they’ll be less likely to see electronics as the bookends to any day. Give your brain a little break, and give your kids a healthy example.
This goes for all things parenting, but especially online: Talk it out.
Sure, you can control what your kids do online with software like Net Nanny, which lets you limit content and set time limits on a given device, or even a router-level solution like Circle With Disney, which can not only pause or otherwise limit Wi-Fi, but can monitor time spent on individual apps and types of videos across whichever smartphones, tablets, and computers connect to it. Unless you at least supplement that with conversations about why those restrictions matter, they may be for naught.
“There are plenty of products on the market that give you a weekly log of where kids have been,” Balkam says. “But that’s also where the conversation comes in.”
“It’s easy for parents to get consumed with tracking every text message or knowing every single app they use, but that’s probably not the best expenditure of your parental time,” says Kaiser. “Kids spend a lot of time online. But if they’re keeping their grades up, they’re engaged in community, they’ve got a good group of friends, why would you be overly concerned? You have to trust on some level that they’re making their way through life in a productive way.”
With that open line of communication, if and when they do run into trouble—whether it’s harassment or bullying or coming across a disturbing image or video—you’ll be the person they come to for help. Better that than looking for it on the internet.
Bonus tip: Balkam strongly suggests literally signing a contract within your family that regulates internet use. The Family Online Safety Institute offers a boilerplate on its website, but you can find them elsewhere, or create your own. The lines you draw are up to you; the important thing is for you and your kids to know exactly where they are.