Anyone with eyes can see that childhood is very different today than it was for previous generations. Rather than riding their bikes around the neighborhood, children are clicking through Google Earth. Instead of playing hide-and-seek at night with friends, children are tapping away at smartphone games. Children “talk” to each other via SnapChat and Facebook messages instead of in person or even over the phone. They no longer ask their parents to take them and their friends to the mall, pool or park. Instead, they ask to borrow the family tablet so they can watch other kids open presents on YouTube.Given how different childhood is today, it is no surprise that parenting has or needs to change to keep up with the changing times. Some parents, however, feel like they are helplessly behind the curve when it comes to keeping up with the shifting needs of their children. This leads some parents to just give up and hand over the job of raising their child to their kid’s teachers or coaches. Others keep trying, but are at a loss as to how to handle the new and ever changing landscape surrounding their child.
For those who are still trying to be parents, there are “dos” and “don’ts” for parenting in the digital age just as there were for parenting before the internet exploded. Unsurprisingly, most of these new rules deal with how to handle children who can troubleshoot an unruly computer but cannot find their way down the street without a GPS. When it comes to dealing with technology and its effects on children and childrearing, here are four things parents in the digital age should never do.
Stay IgnorantThere is a lot to learn when it comes to technology. New words, phrases and concepts can become commonplace almost overnight. Some of these new ideas and technologies are harmless, others depend on their use and still others are harmful. As a parent, your job is to be aware of what your child may encounter. The fact that there is a lot to learn is no excuse for staying ignorant. Learn what it means when your child is “tumbling,” teach yourself to translate the modern hieroglyphics of emojis and do not accept a breezy answer from your child at face value. They might be doing lots of calculations on the calculator on their phone, but your child might also be using one of the many apps that are designed to look like an innocent app, such as a calculator, in order to hide a their actual activities from you. Do your research and learn about what to watch for in the event your child is trying to hide something. Be on guard for signs of cyberbullying as well.
Assume Children Are AngelsChildren are often seen as the embodiment of innocence, and in many ways they are just that. Innocence, however, does not mean that children are incapable of malice or cruelty. Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes observing unsupervised children on a playground has seen children taking others’ toys, pushing, shoving, calling names and otherwise being just plain hateful. That behavior does not mysteriously vanish simply because the child is yours or because they are safely ensconced on the couch with a smartphone. Frankly, it is likely to get worse. Research has shown that people are far less likely to monitor their speech when they are not making eye contact with the other person. Phones and computers take that to the extreme. The relative anonymity granted by screennames allows children to say whatever they wish to whoever they want without any fear of reprisal. The results can be vicious. Attacks on classmates’ appearances, mocking neighbors’ religious beliefs and wishing harm or death on complete strangers are all common place online.
In addition to bullying problems, the internet is filled with all sorts of shadowy corners. Porn is ludicrously easy to find and even “age-blocked” adult websites that require birth dates to access come with workarounds that the average middle school child can handle with ease. You do not have to become a helicopter parent, but do not assume that your child acts online the same way they do in public. The anonymity granted by a keyboard can lead even the best behaved child into all sorts of trouble.
Allow Limitless AccessYour child does not need to keep their phone in their bedroom. They do not need to have 24/7 access to a tablet or computer. No matter how much they may whine about it, unlimited access to the internet and technology is a disaster waiting to happen. The internet is as addictive as any drug, and there are thousands of people who are struggling with internet, social media or smartphone addictions. While not as physically damaging as an alcohol or drug addiction, addictions to technology lead to lost sleep, neglected relationships, damaged academic or work performances, depression and, in extreme cases, suicide. Store phones outside of bedrooms, preferably in a common space, and make it clear that after a certain time, technology is meant to be turned off. Keep computers in common spaces, and do not allow your child to use tablets, computers or smartphones for as long as they wish. Set a time limit of an hour or two, with the exception of when the internet is required to do research for school or work. In those cases, check in occasionally to make sure that the “research” your child is doing does not involve Facebook. Do not rely on apps and software to limit children’s technology usage either. Many of those apps have easy workarounds or can simply be deleted. Such apps and softwares have their uses and are helpful in limiting children’s access to technology, especially programs such as Cold Turkey which are deliberately meant to be difficult to uninstall or work around. Do not, however, rely solely on these programs. When your child has reached the limit for their technology usage for the day, take the phone away. If they insist they need it to contact a friend, allow them to make their call or text. Then, take it away once more and ignore the whining. It is no different than taking away the cake when your child has eaten the piece they were allowed to have as dessert.
Post Without PermissionSocial media and the internet allow for all sorts of potential invasions of privacy. Whether a parent means to or not, they can end up perpetuating those invasions of privacy. You may be think nothing of posting a picture of your family on vacation. Your daughter, however, may not have wanted the entire world to see what she looked like in that new bikini.
Anything you post is available for the entire world to see. You may think you have airtight privacy settings, but it is pitifully easy for a determined hacker or even a curious teen to break into a Facebook or Instagram account. As such, respect your child’s decisions and use the internet as an easy lesson in autonomy and self-respect. If your son or daughter is not comfortable having a picture on social media, respect their decision and do not post it. This goes for text posts as well. If they really do not want you to spread the story of how they were terrified of the llamas at the zoo, refrain from telling all 457 of your followers about it on Twitter.
Since everything on the internet is essentially available to anyone who wants to find it, avoid using social media to scold or punish a child. If you have a problem with something they posted, speak to them in private instead of commenting on the post and making your disapproval public. Your child will not appreciate you, essentially, dragging them in front of all their friends, your friends, half the school, the entire neighborhood and a bunch of curious strangers to tell them off.
Parenting is never easy, but the digital age does bring with it some new challenges. The best defenses against these new issues, however, are no different than anything else that parents have had to deal with in the past. Educate yourself on the potential problems and how to deal with them. Set reasonable limits and stick to them. Above all else, set a good example. Children mimic adult behaviors. It does not matter how often you try to get your child off the computer; if you spend your days glued to your phone, they will do the same. So, put down the phone, turn off the computer and take your children outside. Help your family unplug before it is too late.