Sorry, kids, we’re those parents

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Image courtesy of Steve Paine.

My family is perhaps “stick in the mud” about tech despite being nerdy and internet-dependent.  My husband works for a tech company.  We’re kind of paranoid as parents because of his job.  He sees how the internet works and what can go wrong.  My experiences working with a nonprofit that addresses a number of important issues with youth has colored my views on internet use in kids.  Cyberbullying is real.  We are lucky enough to have some good resources in the area but whenever I attend meetings with parents, I am made aware of more and more issues with the internet.  I’m also aware that a lot of parents – even people my age – are clueless.

My husband and I both had a lot of unfettered access to the internet.  It was mostly over dial up until, in his case, he got T1 in college.  And, in mine, that same year, we got DSL and wifi.  Prior to that, I had access to a computer with a dial up modem in a common area.  We both grew up going into chat rooms, as kids did, potentially meeting cyber predators to pretend to be older teens and do silly things.  We turned out okay, of course, but we’re both aware that it could have been worse.  I was the target of cyberbullying by 8th grade and once had an exchange in high school with a person who I thought was my friend but was being spoofed by a non-friend.  It was definitely deflating but I was luckily able to move on.  I got my first cell phone at 17 and didn’t have a smart phone until 4 years later.  I was an early adopter of that technology.  The husband didn’t have a phone until he was married and didn’t have a smart phone until he graduated from college as a nontraditional student.  He had two kids out of diapers by that time.

I know parents make choices about technology that work for them.  I don’t want to demonize any parents but it is clear that many people are unaware of the consequences of these actions.  They think they are doing the only thing they can do – bend to technology with abandon because the friends are doing it.  Still, this is a plea to at least look into your options before you give your 5 year old a smart phone.  And, also, to arm yourself with some resources because other people may decide to buy your kid a tablet or phone without knowing the dangers or your wishes.  A lot of the parents I talk to regret starting so early with technology because it’s a point of no return.  One of the best pieces of advice parents of teens and experts on the dangers of the internet have given me is set boundaries early and inform extended family of your wishes.  How your family chooses to handle tech has to be case-by-case but knowledge is power.  So, for those of us with younger kids, I’d like to share about what we are doing.  If you want to limit tech, know you are not alone and you aren’t harming your kids.  You have a duty to protect them.  So, being old fuddy duddies won’t hurt your kids no matter how they protest!

What do we know?

Well, for starters, we know screen time can be harmful to people.  Screens are reworking everything in our world.  I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom but we know it can be harmful.  Many of us can’t avoid it.  I’m on a computer right now while my kid plays.  I spent too much time in front of a screen.  My entire job revolves around tech just like my husband’s.  I am often coding, analyzing data, and writing.  But I’m trying to follow the 20-20-20 rule.  I might take a walk or eat my lunch while reading a report.  I might spend time running to the library or crossing campus with a colleague while discussing a project. I am trying to do it more and more these days.

Kids and screens may be even more of a problem.  While some fear that smartphones are really harming kids and are as addictive as cocaine, the dangers of screens alone may be harmful to kids.  One issue many of us encounter as parents is getting our kids to go out and do rather than sit in front of a screen.  That said, we are a tech-oriented family and being nerdy parents who game makes this more complicated.  Still, you might find that tabletop games can be fun, encouraging reading helps (reading physical books), and that kids getting involved in an active sport or activity can help.  One thing that has worked for us is to cut cable.  Many millenials are doing this.  While we have digital content, we really don’t spend as much time watching TV these days.

When it comes to screen time, we know it may have some dangers.  The AAP does not recommend any screen time for kids under 2.  We kind of found this impractical for our own family and I think most do.  So far, we’ve avoided horrendous children’s programming with the toddler.  I’m thankful for this because I hate animation.  I know, I know.  I’m boring.  But there will be a day we break down and choose TV. Daycare does not really rely on tv.  It’s almost never shown.  But there are days our daycare provider is feeling sick or just tapped from her three charges being little demons and resorts to Paw Patrol for that last, awful hour before pick up.  I can’t fault her.  I don’t agree with the sanctimommies on judging parents for handing a tablet or phone to a kid having a meltdown.

Still, the largest concern most experts pose is that of unlimited access to the internet for older kids.  We’ve all had unpleasant exchanges with trolls.  But kids aren’t prepared for that.  They have poor impulse control.  Yes, you should worry about sexting – almost a quarter of all teen girls report sending sexy pictures and almost 20 percent of boys report the same.  I heard about it from middle school parents recently.  We have a middle schooler.  That realization was a tough pill for me to swallow.

I still feel the best reason to set limits is cyberbullying, however.  The Megan Meier Foundation gives resources to parents.  Tina Meier has made it her life’s mission to educate parents about these dangers and she teaches people how to protect kids.  She lost her daughter to suicide.  Megan took her life because she was cyberbullied. Even more locally, in my husband’s hometown of 1,000 people, a kid was bullied both via texts and his manager.  Faced with the realization that he couldn’t do it anymore, he also took his life.  I worry most about this.

Sexting and cyberbullying are real issues and they can have legal implications.  The same kids who are reporting cyberbullying are often reporting they are cyberbullies.  The young women who bullied the aforementioned teen boy is facing very serious charges for text messages and reported exchanges at work which really harmed this boy.  While I think punishing kids with felony convictions for sharing nude posts is probably doing more harm than good, I also am aware that’s the world we live in.  The problem is, we treat kids like adults very early but they don’t develop the skills to cope with technology in a way that shows they understand the consequences of their actions.  We are, in a sense, arming them with a powerful, potentially harmful medium.  When we do this without boundaries and limits, we are playing with fire.  We’re doing them a disservice.

I should also add when it comes to legality that when you allow your kids access to social media before 13 – the legal age to use these services – you are violating terms of service and the basic laws of the internet.  And, what advocates have taught me is especially concerning, is that kids keep aging years ahead.  If your 11 year old is on social media now, she will be 13 at least on her profiles.  By the time she is 16, she will appear to be an adult.  What should scare you is the potential for adults to proposition your kid or be inappropriate thinking that they are adults.  So, before you hook your 10 year old son up with a facebook account or twitter, really seriously think about what that means.

So, how do you stay realistic and adjust to a changing world while still protecting your kids?  That’s a great question.  We are constantly adjusting our expectations.  We’ve had to learn over time and will probably do lots different with the youngest.  I don’t mean to say it isn’t a challenge.  It is utterly daunting and intimidating.

So what have we done?  We’ve opposed all unfettered access to tech in the older kids lives.  This has been ridiculously hard.  Blended families are problematic in this way.  When my in-laws purchased the kids tablets that didn’t have easy parental controls with the best intentions, we decided they needed to hear about it.  Again, our intent wasn’t to come from a place of anger but, instead, to tell them about the dangers of the internet.  Grandparents can be your best or worst ally.  The struggle for the cell phone has been much more difficult with the oldest.  We’ve gotten pleas to buy data more times than my husband can count.  Every phone call.  Every holiday.  And we decline.

Our rules and boundaries had to be simple and we had to be realistic.  The kids live in another state and their mom has her own rules.  She has to make her decisions.  We said we would oppose cell phones until the kids were in high school. This was a battle we lost and budged on.  Our compromise was phones can be had but they won’t have any access to data.  Yes, we are cruel parents.  We won’t be buying any of the kids any tech they can access in a bedroom alone with internet until we are comfortable with them seeing adult content.  If they want a laptop or tablet, they will need to use it in a common area or will have parental controls enabled..  This was the thing we told my in laws which did resonate the most. We are pledged to the Wait Until 8th campaign.  The kids may get phones but they won’t have access to data plans until at least 8th grade.

I wish I could say this again and again but until you feel comfortable with a kid seeing porn, you should probably keep all tech in a public space and limit it.  Homework can be done in the dining room or living room, believe me.  This may make you have to change your hours of watching tv.  But, you know what, it’s probably better for you, too.

Parental controls can help but I know many of us had experience thwarting them as young people.  When I was 11, I would go to a friend’s house where there were parental controls.  We knew exactly how to get around the.  It almost became a game.  Kids are much more tech savvy than we are and new apps pop up all the time.  If you are checking their Facebook or following them on Twitter, just know that they are also probably using apps you have no idea about on their phones or tablets.  This is one thing I learned from the local cyber crimes expert. I can guarantee you, though, your kids do know how to avoid parental controls or download new apps if they go to school.

Note that even great parental controls are also only as good as your use of them.  I knew someone who spent HOURS reviewing the reports from software at work in real time and then at home.  Her phone would send her their text messages, what they were doing on tablets, etc.  It became all-consuming.  And, in reality, I think she felt like it was unsustainable.  Still, we all know that once you go there, though, it’s hard to turn back.  So, be aware that parental controls are not a silver bullet and can be a time suck for you.  We’ve determined we won’t be allowing TV’s in bedrooms or personal devices in kids rooms for this reason.  We just don’t have time to monitor every single thing the kids do.  That’s too much of a responsibility.  It’s easier to observe in real-time with limits on when devices can be used for us.  That said, these tools do work for many families – especially in cases with younger kids.

Bottom line- you aren’t alone, parents.  It’s not a situation that is hopeless.  You don’t have to allow for everything and you can get educated.  Advocates are with you on the benefits of setting limits.  The Wait Until 8th Campaign is also there to support parents who are pledging to keep their kids off of Smartphones.  If the tech gurus of the world can do it, so can you!

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