It can be hard to constantly monitor what your child is doing online. If you’re always stressed about your child’s activity, not only is it bad for you, but you could limit your child’s vital learning about how to use important technology. In our increasingly digital world, the more a kid understands about the devices they’ll be using for the rest of their life, they better off they are.
However, it is important to pay attention to how your child is using the internet. Often, we tend to think of the internet of a place that exists outside of “real life,” when, in fact, this is the opposite of the truth. One key to successfully handling your kid’s behavior online is to stop thinking about life online as being somehow separate from the real world. Assuming the worst just because your child’s behavior is associated with a computer is unhealthy for both you and your kid.
The internet is full of possibilities — both good and bad. Keep an eye out for the following behaviors, as they could indicate that your child is using the web in unhealthy ways:
Spending Too Much Time on Devices
Many computer games are engaging enough to suck in fully grown adults for hours on end, so imagine what they’re like for little ones with supercharged imaginations. You may remember a favorite computer game from your childhood that you spent a lot of time on, until your parents cut you off. Spending a lot of time on the computer isn’t bad; kids will learn valuable computer literacy skills, and many games are designed to help kids learn.
While it might bug you to see your kid stare at a screen for a long time, next time ask yourself, would you be quite so annoyed if they were staring at the TV instead? Or even playing with traditional toys? Think about the many hours you likely spent staring at a computer or the tube and playing pretend. Despite parental weariness, computers as playthings are not inherently bad.
However, computer games can lead to escapist behaviors for kids, who might be immersing themselves in digital worlds because of issues in their own lives. If you feel like this might be the case with your kid, it’s time for a talk. Further, there are serious health issues associated with being sedentary for long periods of time, such as high blood pressure, increased risk of cancers, and depression, meaning traditional playtime has some benefits that can’t be beat digitally.
Just as you would limit any other playtime, kids need rules when it comes to time on their devices. Children are not good at impulse control and will keep using their devices unless they’re told to stop. Many games are designed to be addictive. Help emphasize balance to your kids by letting them know there’s a time and place for using their devices. Don’t be afraid to say no to your child if they want to bring their tablet to the dinner table.
Protective of Computers or Phones
Kids are just like us in some ways, including their desire for privacy. There’s nothing wrong at all with children desiring a certain level of privacy — it’s a normal and natural part of growing up. In fact, when it comes to oversharing online, parents are the culprits just as often as their kids. Encroaching too much into your kid’s (reasonable) boundaries can make them feel like they can’t trust you, and you don’t need to be told what kind of issues that can lead to.
However, if your kid is weird about their computer, tablet, or phone, it could indicate that it’s time to step in. When your child is being overly protective of their devices, it likely means there is something on them they don’t want you to find.
Private browsing, incognito windows, clearing histories, and hiding apps are just some of the sneakier techniques that kids might use to hide their internet activity. If your kid doesn’t want you to look at their phone or always places it face down so you can’t view their notifications, be aware. Similarly, if they seem wary of you using their computer or quickly close windows as soon as you enter the room, it might be worth thinking about why they’re acting that way.
Dangerous Websites and Apps
If your kids are on these sites or apps, keep an eye out. While some of these can be used by kids in totally harmless ways, like Snapchat, others aren’t safe for kids at all.
Omegle/Chatroulette — These sites pair users with another random user using video chat, and allow anonymity. A very large proportion of the users on these sites stream content that contains nudity. These users are typically men who stream themselves nude in front of their webcam to shock or proposition other users. Under no circumstances should these websites be considered safe for kids to use.
Snapchat/Kik — While messaging apps are often used in totally innocent ways by kids, the danger comes from the ability to send messages that disappear, meaning your child could engage in unsafe behavior, like sexting, without worrying about you coming across any of their messages.
Harmful websites/forums — There is plenty of content on the internet that kids shouldn’t engage with like pornographic sites, sites that encourage hateful behavior, or sites that promote eating disorders.
The damage that cyberbullies do to their victims can cause lasting emotional and social harm. Whether your child is a victim of bullying or is a bully themselves, it’s important to identify this behavior early on.
It can be heartbreaking to know that your child has been the victim of harassment. The public nature of social networking combined with the anonymity that the internet provides can amplify the effects of bullying when it takes place online. If your child is being cyberbullied, there are a number of steps you can take. Most importantly, talk to your child about what’s happening and remember to encourage them to speak openly about the harassment and not be ashamed or hide the abuse from you.
If you find out that your child has been the perpetrator of cyberbullying, it’s very important to take their actions seriously. Children need to learn that their actions have consequences, and if you try to brush their abusive behavior under the rug, it’s likely that they will take your dismissiveness as permissiveness. It’s best to treat your child’s online behavior just the same as their real-life behavior, because it is. The harm that cyberbullies do to victims is never to be taken lightly, and prevention works best.
To keep your kids safer online, there are a number of steps you can take. Start off by writing a technology contract with your child. Contracts help open up a dialogue about the importance of internet safety, and give you an opportunity to explain why you make certain rules, which can help motivate kids to follow them. Google has a game for kids about internet safety, designed to help them learn digital safety and citizenship fundamentals, called Interland. If you feel like you need more control over your child’s browsing habits you can try a browser or plug-in designed for kids on the web.
The best tool you can give your children to keep them safe online is knowledge. Kids are tech savvy, but they don’t always have the context of experience to help them make good decisions. It might even help you to draw from your own experiences on the web to teach your child about easy mistakes to make. Most importantly, teach your child that the internet is very much a part of real life, and that their actions on the web don’t end when they close the browser or put down their phone.