Parenting with technology is hard and it’s a new frontier. It’s not something we can really ask our own parents for advice on because it hasn’t existed before in the same pervasive way it does today. Therefore I find it can help to relate it to something we do know about and which we may be more confident with in our parenting.
The most helpful metaphor I’ve found is probably water safety. There are many similarities between what you do as a parent to ensure your child is safe around water and what you can be doing as a parent to ensure your child grows up being safe online.
- Education starts from as young as possible with the parent and child in the water together.
It’s generally accepted by both water safety experts and technology experts that starting education at the earliest age possible is beneficial. We want to ‘normalise’ the experience of being in water for very young children so that they are familiar with it and see it as a positive thing. We also want them to know as early as possible what to do if they happen to accidentally find themselves in trouble in the water so they can take measures to return themselves to safety.
Online safety is no different. The strategy of trying to restrict your child from using any technology until they are much older is as silly as trying to avoid water for their entire childhood. In fact, even sillier, as at least pools have fences around them.
Having said that, you would never just throw your child into a pool unsupervised. Technology is no different. It’s important to be ‘present’ with your child as they begin to use technology, just like being in the water with your toddler for their first swimming lessons. You need to guide them and begin to show them at the earliest of ages how to use a device in a safe and responsible way, and also what to do if they find themselves in a tricky or uncomfortable situation.
It is now common place for children from about 18 months to be using their parents’ smart phones and tablets, but not as common for parents to be actively monitoring this or guiding their child through the use of the device. Kids are often left to their own exploration with the benefit to the parent that it is keeping the child occupied in a waiting room or during a dinner outing.
This is the very first point at which a child’s use of technology starts to become somewhat of a mystery to the parent. If parents of toddlers don’t know exactly what their child is ‘getting up to’ on an electronic device, imagine what the state of play will be by the time that child is 12 years old.
- Never leave a child unattended near water.
Once again, you’d never leave your child alone near water, and the same should apply with technology. It should be used only in common areas where you can monitor what is happening regularly. Kids with technology in bedrooms is never safe. It’s not about how responsible your child is or isn’t. Children cannot always know the full consequences of what they are doing online. They need guidance and consistent monitoring in order to be safe.
- Seek advice on whether a body of water is safe before you let your children swim in it.
We drill our kids to only swim between the flags at the beach. This is not only because that is where the beach is being monitored by Life Savers, but also because you know that section of the ocean has been declared the safest place to swim by an expert that has come to the beach before you and checked everything out. Once again, online safety is no different. If you’re not sure whether a particular program is safe for your child to be using, then do the necessary checks to ensure it is. Don’t know anything about Minecraft? Look it up. Read about it. Talk to your child about it. Sit with your child as they use it and get them to explain to you what they are doing. Play it yourself! Do everything you can to be as informed as possible about what your children are doing online. It’s not always easy, especially if you are not naturally ‘tech savvy’, but it is extremely important. Some people I talk to are very proud of the fact that they are not using programs such as Facebook as they consider them to be ‘stupid’ and a ‘waste of time’. That’s fine as a personal opinion. But if your child is using it, you need to sign up straight away and get to know what it’s all about.
- Water can be dangerous, but swimming in it isn’t a ‘bad’ thing to let your child do
There is a stigma around children and technology use that can negatively impact on our effectiveness as parents. Parents can feel bad about letting their children play on a device because they have some idea that it’s ‘not good for them’. This often doesn’t change the fact that their child uses the device regularly. Being almost in denial of the fact that technology use is happening in the first place can mean that you haven’t properly planned out your parenting strategy, let alone the related safety concepts you want to teach your children.
Technology is not a bad thing, and it in fact can be a very positive and educational thing for children to be using, as long as it’s age appropriate, in moderation and with the right supervision. Accept that technology will be part of your child’s everyday life and begin to plan in an active way to guide their use and educate them about it, just as you do with swimming.
Forming a positive relationship around technology with your child as early as possible, where you are actively involved and interested in what they are doing, will be the best thing to set you up to effectively support them during their teenage years.