Your Child’s Secret Life Online: 7 Ways to Manage It as a Parent
Your teen needed a laptop for school, so you bought it. He needed a phone to keep in touch with you, so after a half-hour argument with him at the wireless store, a “phone” became an iPhone 6. He has an iPad Air because, after you told him it wasn’t in the budget, he spent the weekend with his dad, and voila! He has an iPad.
Now, every time you look at your son, he has a screen in front of his face, barely audible text notifications going off at all hours and he’s on social media sites you’ve never heard of. Suddenly, his use of technology has gone past school work and into a strange kind of secrecy.
I believe the most important thing you can do is open up regular dialogue about your child’s online experiences and approach it with genuine, open curiosity.
Technology is empowering and necessary for kids and for parents. But the longer I work with families in my practice, the more I see technology becoming problematic for them. Think about your child’s smart phone. It’s a very complex device that can be used for good or bad. It’s a communication tool and a wonderful research and study tool. For the kid who struggles to focus on homework, however, it’s a chronic distraction machine—an ADD machine, if you will. It’s a camera and video camera that can broadcast your child’s mistakes and poor choices to the world in seconds. It’s a weapon for bullying and a source of anxiety for kids who are bullied. It’s a reason your son doesn’t get enough sleep at night. It’s a pornography machine at the touch of the wrong link. It’s a device that can expose your young child to things you don’t want her to see. Ever.
How are your kids using technology? Do you know what they’re looking at when they’re curled up on the sofa for five hours with their phones six inches from their face? When you ask them who they’re talking to online, do you get a one-word, snippy answer, if any answer at all? It’s tricky territory for parents. Your teen knows more about the online world than you probably ever will, and it can quickly become another way for your child to behave defiantly with you. So how do you even talk to your child about their online life, interests and safety?
Immobilized Parents: “I don’t know what to do about it, so I’ll do nothing.”
Although they may be wizards with setting up devices and finding cool apps, most kids do not have the emotional intelligence to be able to manage and understand everything they’re seeing online. That’s why parents need to be involved.
Increasingly, though, I see parents becoming immobilized around their kids’ use of technology. They don’t know what to do or where to start, so they do nothing. It’s normal for parents to feel “frozen” and helpless about the online world of their child.
I met a parent recently who had discovered her young son had been watching videos online of people playing Russian Roulette. She was lucky. Her son brought up the subject, instead of keeping it to himself, because he was disturbed by what he saw. Mom felt immobilized. What should she do? Take his phone away? Restrict access? Should she talk to him about what else he’s watching online? Without a clear option, should she do nothing?
Remaining immobilized around your child’s technology use isn’t effective or empowering for you as a parent, and it doesn’t help your child. I believe the most important thing you can do is open up regular dialogue about your child’s online experiences and approach it with genuine, open curiosity. Many kids remain secretive about what they’re doing and seeing online because:
- Technology is a tether to their social life; they are very socially focused and protective of their right to be.
- They don’t want you in their business, and the secrecy is a form of defiance
- They’re in over their heads as far as what they’re seeing or engaging in online and don’t know how to talk about it. I remember an 11-year-old client who started looking at pornography sites on his phone and eventually clicked on particularly disturbing, violent porn that gave him nightmares. He wanted to talk about the problem but he was ashamed and afraid.
This is why it’s important for parents to engage with their kids about what’s happening online for them. It shouldn’t be a secret in the home. Here are some ways for parents to manage their child’s online life and open dialogue about it that I’ve found to be effective.
7 Ways to Manage Your Child’s Online Life
- Set large boundaries early. If you have younger children between the ages of 5 and 8, consider setting large boundaries around your own smartphone or tablet. I do this with my own kids. My wife and I make the limit very clear: “You cannot touch Daddy’s iPhone. If you want to see my pictures on the phone, you have to ask first.” I do this because I only want them to be exposed to what’s appropriate for them at that age. And, frankly, it’s just easier for me at this stage. I minimize the risk of them getting on the web and going down some scary road by setting one large, simple limit and staying consistent with it.For example, I do this a lot in my practice. Use the words, “Show me.” I’m at an age where I can very clearly remember what it was like to be 15, but I’m far enough away from it to ask a question that’s fairly innocent. So if I want to know what kind of social media platforms a teen is engaging in, I’ll simply say, “Hey, what’s SnapChat about? Can you show me?” It’s a simple question, and more often than not, kids will show you the app on their phone, and you can start a conversation about it. You’re not asking to see specific content and pry into your child’s privacy. You’re simply asking about the app. And you can see where your child is comfortable and uncomfortable. If you feel empowered to be truly curious, you will learn something and connect with your child. It’s no longer a big secret. I think this is essential when it comes to the online world. If you don’t ask questions, how else will you learn?
- Ask your child questions about their online experience with no judgment. Ask when you can do so with openness and genuine curiosity, not when you’re feeling testy or angry. Take the stance that “No one’s in trouble here.”
- Ask your teen what other kids are doing. I use this question to get kids to open up about drug use among their peers: “What kinds of drugs are you seeing kids use?” You can use a similar question about how “other kids” use social media or online chat: “I’m curious. What kinds of social media apps are other kids using? Are they chatting online these days? How?” Again, if you can remain open and curious, this is an opportunity for your child to talk about what’s happening for them online, through the example of “other kids.”
- Ask your teen: “Have you ever seen anything online that disturbed you?” As parents, we’ve all encountered things online that made us hit the back button or the home button and get out of it. Your teen has likely done the same thing and may be more interested in talking about it than you think. Ask the question and talk about a personal example of something you found disturbing. It normalizes the experience and makes it less of a secret.
- Speak with like-minded parents. You are not the only parent who wishes their child would engage with them half as much as they do their devices. Ask parents whom you trust, “How are you managing phones in your family?” You’re likely to get some good tips on managing technology. All you have to do is ask.
- Establish text-free times for everyone in your home. Model appropriate use of technology. Set aside time each day for no texting, Facebook-checking or email sending. And follow it as parents. Put down your iPad. Use that time to talk about how your kids’ days went.
- Replace online time with family time. Limits around technology use are a lot easier to enforce if you replace what you’re taking away with something that benefits everyone. Plan a technology-free night as a family. No phones, no Instagram, no texting. Go to a movie or to the beach…and talk.
There’s nothing more powerful than parental influence in a child’s life. But technology holds a seductive type of power for adults and kids that can overwhelm parental influence without us even being aware of it. The antidote to this can be one or two sincere questions that you ask your child and a willingness and courage to allow for whatever the answer is.
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