by Joyce Marter, LCPC
In this time of rapidly developing technology, it’s challenging for parents to stay current and informed about how to help their children have a positive experience with computers, cellphones, social media and other 21st century communication tools. Many parents have a difficult time walking the fine line between encouraging their children’s use of technology (for learning, development and positive social interaction) and protecting them (from online predators, cyberbullying, or from developing addictive or compulsive behaviors with technology).
But there is a happy medium between allowing kids full access to technology with no supervision and overprotecting them to the point that they are alienated them from positive social and learning opportunities. Based on my experience as a therapist, I recommend that parents be aware of the following.
What are the ways kids are using technology to communicate?
• Texting or chatting through social media sites, online forums and games
• Video chatting through sites like FaceTime and Skype
• Social media postings (text, photos and video) via sites such as Facebook and Twitter
At what age is this an issue?
There is a range of ages when kids begin to use various forms of technology, because parents have different financial capabilities, comfort levels and values. These differences can cause social challenges for kids if their friends have access to these things and they do not. Peer pressure can drive children to find the means to access this technology behind their parents’ backs, and use it without supervision. Parents need to consider the maturity of their child and ask if he or she can follow the guidelines, be responsible for the device, and handle the possible distraction.
Verizon Wireless and Parenting.com conducted a survey in 2011 asking 519 parents with children ages 6 to 17 at what age did they or would they give their child a cellphone. About 10 percent of respondents chose the ages of 7 to 9, 32 percent opted for ages 10 to 12 and nearly 40 percent said they wouldn’t give their child a cellphone until he or she was age 13 to 15.
In my practice, many parents report giving children as young as 4 or 5 an iPod touch or similar device, which gives them access to the Internet, email, video chatting, free calling through Skype and texting through apps like TextNow. However, many social media sites have an age restriction (for instance, Facebook users must be at least 13).
What are the benefits to a child having a cellphone or device with Internet access?
• Being able to reach your child
• Knowing where your child is via a GPS tracking device
• Helping your child learn through educational applications
• Providing social inclusion in a technological age
What are the safety concerns?
• Vulnerability to predators on the Internet
• Access to inappropriate content on the Internet
• Susceptibility to cyberbullying
• The possibility your child could share inappropriate content via text, photo or video
How can you keep your child safe?
• Use the restrictions page and block some things like YouTube, Safari and iTunes. IOS devices (iPhone and iPad) have a restrictions configuration page in Settings -> General -> Restrictions. The following apps can be disabled: Safari, YouTube, Camera, FaceTime, iTunes, Ping, Installing Apps, and Deleting Apps. On this page you can also adjust the allowed content.
• Use a parental control app to block pornography. If you have an Android device, you can install a free app called Android Parental Control that does similar things to the iPhone restrictions page mentioned above.
• Restrict your child’s contacts (email, text and social media) to family and friends whose parents you know.
• Use services such as AT&T’s Smart Limits or Verizon’s Usage Controls to set limits on minutes, restrict time-of-day use and even dictate whom the child can call or text.
• Request that your carrier block content or prevent a child from texting photos.
• Use your Wi-Fi settings to disable Internet service to certain devices after 9 p.m. It depends on the Wi-Fi router your using at home (Cisco, Linksys, Netgear, Belkin, ASUS), check your router’s configuration or read the documentation. If your present WIFI router doesn’t offer the services look into purchasing one that does. To do this from an iPhone or macbook, keep in mind that all routers can be configured from a web browser. The Wi-Fi router configuration URL is almost always https://192.168.1.1. You’ll need to know your username and password for the router to login.
• Block inappropriate sites through a Wi-Fi firewall. Again, some Wi-Fi routers have firewall services that can be enabled to block inappropriate content.
• Set up your children’s email account on your own devices so you can monitor their content and conversations.
What are the social concerns?
• Communication problems such as misunderstood messages
How can you combat these concerns?
Provide education and guidance about appropriate communication via technology, and set the following boundaries.
• When they can use it—for instance, not during school hours or after 8 p.m., not during social events such as family gatherings or play dates when they should be relating face to face rather than through technology.
• How much can they use it. I recommend less than two hours a day to reduce development of addictive/compulsive behaviors.
• Where they can use it—for instance, not at school or events related to school, religion or athletics.
In my experience, the most important thing you can do to promote safety and wellness in your children’s use of technology is to talk with them directly about it. Educate them at a level that is developmentally appropriate about the pros and cons of technology. Be clear about the rules and the consequences for breaking them. Then trust your child to be responsible. Follow through with the consequences if the rules are broken. View your child’s mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth, and keep the dialogue going. Parents need to provide roots but also wings: Educate and set parameters, but allow your kids the freedom to learn and grow.