Taking inventory of the technological gadgets in my home, I find the following: Windows desktop computer (1), Windows laptop (1), 2-in-1 convertible Windows laptop (1), Windows tablet (1), iPad (1), four cell phones (3 Android, 1 iOS), cable/internet modem and wi-fi router, internet-connected TV (2), Nest thermostat (1), Echo Dot (1), a Roku, an internet-connected home security system, our vehicle (AndroidAuto + built-in internet connection), a Wii, a PS2 and PS3, a 3DS, and several wired / bluetooth speakers, headphones and earbuds (and this isn’t counting the various technological gadgets my son has with him at college!).
I think that, for most of our homes, the list would be about the same, and could include smart appliances, smart watches, network enabled lights, and many other IoT (internet of things) devices. For all the hand-wringing that these devices seem to elicit, for many people they’re part and parcel of work, family and recreation. And so the starting point for a reflection on digital citizenship for me begins with the realization that these gadgets are, in and of themselves, not evil – they’re tools, and their perceived (not intrinsic) goodness or evilness is rooted in the way they’re used.
The same holds true for the digital spaces where people gather and the digital tools we use to communicate. On any given day I’ll use one or more of the following spaces and tools to communicate with people: email (personal and work), Facebook / Facebook Messenger, texting, Instagram, Reddit, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Twitch, Skype, YouTube, and WOW. Our children may use any of those or others, including: FaceTime, Snapchat, Pinterest, DeviantArt, GroupMe, Kik Messenger, Tik Tok (including musical.ly), Tumblr, Houseparty, Live.me, YouNow, Jott Messenger, Weibo, Flickr, Periscope, Meerkat, Livestream, and Stream; they may also connect with friends far and wide through their video game consoles and associated apps.
None of these digital spaces and apps are evil in and of themselves, and our primary task as parents is to teach and guide our children in the proper use of these tools. Just as we would never drop off our tweenagers at the Mall without repeatedly asking questions and giving instructions (Who’s going to be there? Are their parents going to be there? Do I have their phone number? You have your phone with you, right? Fully charged? What did we say about talking to strangers? How much can you spend today? You have your wallet and cash on you, right? Which stores are you not allowed to go into again? What’s our safe word? Remember to call me if anything happens! I’m picking you up right at 3 pm at the food court. Remember to eat lunch!), so we don’t let them loose on their digital devices without guidance. And just as we teach them to use utensils and to navigate their physical space, we must teach them to use the digital apps that are part of their digital landscape.
CommonSense Media gives us the following statistics:
- 70% of teens use social media of some sort (just six years ago it was 34%)
- Almost all adolescents own a personal phone and / or tablet
- One third of adolescents use social media for about an hour a day
- Adolescents prefer social media and video chat to face to face conversation with peers
- 49% of adolescents rate social media use as “not too important / somewhat important”
- For adolescents in already vulnerable situations (poverty, traumatic home situations, depressed, etc.) - social media use can be more negative
- However, tech and social media are an important avenue of creative expression for many adolescents, both in vulnerable situations and in nurturing home situations
- Only 13% of adolescents say they’ve been cyberbullied
- While 23% say they've tried to help someone who is being bullied
So while news stories can sensationalize isolated incidents, the vast majority of children who are spending time online are safe; they will not get contacted by online predators, and any violent or sexual imagery they find will most likely be accidental. Having said that, though, there are many steps that parents can take to ensure that children are safely accessing the internet and using their digital devices for school and play:
- The first and most important step: continually talk to your children about their health and safety; just as we don’t tell them once “brush your teeth” and then never bring it up again, conversations about their bodies, minds and souls, respect, safety (both online and offline) and matters of the heart should be ongoing and based on their age and interest in the topic
- Constant reminders that they can talk to their parents or other trusted adults about their lives are also necessary
- If you are uncomfortable or unsure how to talk to your children about these topics, speak with another trusted adult, or look for print or digital resources to help give you strategies to broach the topics and to answer any questions your children may have
- Specifically for media use and consumption: model the behavior you want your kids to practice – if they see you using your phone while you drive (which is both dangerous and illegal!), they’ll balk at you telling them not to touch their phone when they start driving; if you’re on your tablet at the dinner table, they’ll resent being told to put away their digital device; if you respond to every “ding” of your smart watch, they’ll wonder why they can’t text their friend right away; and if you spend four hours three times a week watching the pre-game, game, and game analysis for every major sporting event, they’ll be upset when they’re told they can only play their Xbox for one hour; the same holds true if you’re binge watching your favorite show for hours on end!
- If your children are using any social media accounts (see the list earlier in the article), teach them (and learn how, if unsure) to put all accounts on private, so that only people they specifically want to see their posts can see them
- However, remind them that nothing is ever 100% private – all it takes is one screenshot accidentally (or purposefully) sent out and that private message or personal picture can now be anywhere on the internet; once something is uploaded, it’s virtually impossible to fully remove its online presence; a good rule of thumb is to never send anything – text or image – that they would not want the whole world to see or read
- Parents should have access to digital devices and know all passwords that children use for their accounts; there’s no hard and fast rule as to when to start giving children more digital privacy, but having this information as part of their device use up to Junior High is not unreasonable
- Children should not be allowed unsupervised access to digital equipment or digital accounts – devices and accounts should be accessed in well-travelled places at home, not in a private room with a closed door
- Children should be taught to not give out personally identifiable information online, or to post images or text that can be used to pinpoint their schedule or location
- GPS / location tracking should be turned off as much as possible on digital devices for children
- Make sure all privacy and search setting are set on internet browsers children use, and that chat filters are turned on for any online games children play; this will help minimize their exposure to images or phrases that they are not developmentally ready for or are not appropriate for them
- Finally, if your child does come across any images, websites or text that makes them uncomfortable, continually reassuring them that they will not be in trouble for bringing it to your attention will help them feel more comfortable coming to you if they accidentally stumble across something that is inappropriate or scary for them
The best way, though, to keep our kids safe and healthy online is to be present with them. Just as we attend their concerts, games, competitions, parties and school events, we are challenged to be present with them as they watch their favorite video or show (even if it’s the tenth time this week!), play their favorite video games (how many times is Mario going around the same track?), or listen to their favorite music (Taylor Swift again? BTS again?). If we can allow them the space and time to develop into the person God created them to be, we are showing them that they are important by valuing the things that they are interested in. Our guidance and discipline will be most effective when they can see that we are not condemning their choices out of hand, but are willing to lovingly and sometimes sacrificially enter into their lives with our time and energy.
Resources / Articles
- Common Sense Media
- PBS Parents
- 50 Questions To Ask Your Kids Instead Of Asking “How Was Your Day”
- How We Were Fooled Into Thinking That Sexual Predators Lurk Everywhere
- Browser Security – Tips, Guidelines and Best Practices
- What is the IoT? Everything you need to know about the Internet of Things right now
Blessings & Peace,
Hugo De La Rosa III