Internet safety is a complicated and multifaceted issue, in part because a family’s culture and outlook on technology must be considered. As such, there is not necessarily a “one size fits all” method to raise your children with technology and the Internet.
It is important to view the Internet as a tool—in fact, picture a chainsaw. Like any tool you will want to set clear expectations and teach the user safety measures, as well as skills for handling the tool efficiently, and discuss hypothetical situations for what to do if there is an accident or emergency. The same can be said for the Internet and your children. Unlike a chainsaw, however, there is no operations manual for the Internet, so consider the guidelines below as you map out your family’s personal safety manual:
Parenting has not changed. Technology, particularly the Internet, has changed our lives, but it has not necessarily changed the rules of parental engagement! The world may be new, but the problems are not.
Content matters. Setting clear expectations for your child’s Internet use is a necessity. If your child were to play in the neighborhood, you would want to know who they are meeting, where they are going, what they plan to do, and when they will return home. Having that information allows you to set more targeted boundaries. Similarly, becoming more familiar with your child’s Internet use is an important hurdle to overcome.
Learn from each other. As you teach your children how to use the Internet, it will also be your responsibility to learn from them about the ways in which they use it and about dangers they may encounter.
Co-engagement counts. For younger children, be prepared to monitor their use much more closely and use parental controls. Plan to use the Internet together with your young child. I recommend “saddling up” to children when they are engaged in a game or video and to simply participate with them—what better way to learn together? As youth develop through their teenage years, foster more exploration and independence with continued monitoring and coaching of appropriate use.
Role modeling is critical. Take a moment to consider the ways you and other caregivers use technology. Some adults use their phones during dinnertime, and others might use devices in bed before going to sleep. Make sure to talk with other caregivers to establish consistent expectations for what you want to model to your children.
Create tech-free zones. Consider creating tech-free times of day for the whole family! Dinnertime and bedtime are good places to start. Remember that if you frequently use devices during such times you will be hard-pressed to enforce such tech-free zones for your children. Work with other caregivers to make this expectation clear and consistent.
It’s OK for your child to be online. In many ways, the Internet is like a diet. Your children live in a world of screens, and the Internet will only become more integrated into everything they do. Your job is to teach them how to have a balanced diet of educational, social, and entertainment content.
Kids will be kids. There will be missteps, but you must use small errors as teachable moments. Continue to discuss hypotheticals with them; what would you do if . . . ? Be supportive and empathetic and help your child learn from their mistakes.
Most importantly, accept that you are ready to tackle this challenge. Be there with them from the beginning and be ready to learn together as you all navigate the digital landscape as a family.
Douglas M. Brodman, PhD, is a clinical instructor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Child Study Center. He provides clinical intervention and consultation to families and youth struggling from emotional and disruptive behavioral disorders.