Should We Protect Our Children?
One of the first protections we offer our young children is teaching them how to cross a road. We tell them to wait, look both ways, look both ways again, and then cross. When they are very little, we make them hold our hands when we cross the road. We also tell them not to talk to strangers when we’re not with them.
Over the years, parenting experts have grappled with how much we should be protecting our children, how much is overprotecting, and how much protection is downright debilitating. But I don’t think anyone would argue that crossing the internet highway presents unimaginable risks and that overprotection, in whatever form, might be required.
In her Senate testimony, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen reflected on her own childhood as a time when the bullying happened at school and then children went home. Ms. Haugen said that Instagram allows bullying to continue all day. “Facebook's own research says now the bullying follows them home. It goes into their bedrooms,” she said. She explained further that the “last thing they see at night is someone being cruel to them. The first thing they see in the morning is a hateful statement and that is just so much worse.”
While not all homes are loving sanctuaries, they provided physical separation that paused and diffused the impact of the harm. The harm was also not broadcast to many others who were not present at the incident. Just like we create a nursery for them when they’re born, parenting in the digital age means creating a safe, comfortable environment – real and digital – for a child to grow.
When we teach a child to read, the content of the book is designed for their age. For instance, early readers meet Clifford the Big Red Dog, the Pigeon, Amelia Bedelia, and Ramona the Pest. We wouldn’t see a simple sentence book about the Korean War. Certainly we want them to progress to Harry Potter, but at the right age, when their cognition and emotions are ready.
Even once our children are 13,14, and 15, we certainly want them exposed to more challenging information about science, nature, pop culture, music, art, and politics. But why would we ever want them to be exposed to violence, cruelty, and self-harm information? That’s not a destination for any age.
According to Anne Collier, executive director of The Net Safety Collaborative, the traditional internet ground rules still apply:
Don't share personal information online.
Don't share photos online.
Don't follow or friend anyone you don't know.
Keep gaming chat just about the game.
Some of these rules mirror our real-world admonishments, like precaution around strangers. Others about sharing information need more extensive family conversation.
Using all the online safety tools you know is one thing I definitely recommend. Every major operating system offers options to keep kids safer.
But remember, the most critical protective factor is your relationship with your child. Kids trust us. They trust us to keep them safe and make them feel safe. Safety is not only about not sharing. (We well know data is being collected on our kids whether they share it or not.) It’s about making them secure in the knowledge that they can check in with us about anything and know we’ll listen, without judgment, whether they had an uncomfortable exchange online or they saw something disturbing.
Try saying “Just like everything else in life, I want you to talk with me about what you do and see online. I will never punish you for being honest.” Then stick with it.
We can’t hold their hand (or hover over their screens) every time our kids step out into the digital highway. But, we can listen, watch, ask curiosity questions, encourage other activities, and model responsible and reduced social media use. Our Dear Parents guide can help us get started on the road to more open communication with our teens.
“The more time we spend online, the less time we have to dream,” I told my kids. And kids love to dream.