That is just a reality. So, as any manager faced with an inevitability on the horizon would, you must think about strategies for controlling availability, access, cost and the efficient use of this tool in your family life. You must do it now because waiting until they are old enough to ask for it or see that their friends have it, is a little too late. You will be behind the curve already and will be playing catch up in a negotiating game that they are far more motivated to win than you are…unless you know the facts.
You need to know about computers, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever else is being developed as we speak. There are and should be age limitations on many of the social networking services. However, I know from personal experience that children are highly motivated to get around those limitations if they can.
Each family has their own feelings about when it is appropriate for their child to have access to the Internet or cell phones, and I don’t ever mean to tell parents what is right or wrong for their particular child.
You know your child and how responsible they are. However, here are some things we observed and learned along the way and rules that we made that seemed to be logical to both sides of the equation.
- Cell phones – something you, and you alone should control. Our girls got them when they needed them. This will probably be late middle school or high school unless you have a child with a heavy extra-curricular schedule who needs to let you know when to pick them up. Keep bells and whistles to a minimum with first phones. Limited texts are a good idea, to begin with, and make it very clear that if they go over, the amount will come out of their allowance. This is a great opportunity to control the 24-hour texting issues some parents experience and an object lesson in budgeting since they probably will only go over once after getting that bill! Put a curfew on the phone. It gets turned off at a certain time at night and no more calls until morning.
- Enforce school rules about cell phones and if they lose theirs due to breaking it, agree to consequences ahead of time. Program family member numbers in and make sure to get insurance on the phone. I guarantee there will be an injury or loss the first go around and you will be glad you did. Again, they should pick up any replacement cost over the insurance so that they have a strong incentive to take very good care of their phone.
- Make a rule that until they are old enough to buy their own phone and pay for their own plan, this is a family phone. It is not private and may be subject to the reading of texts, etc. at any time as parents deem it necessary. Why, do you ask? Google “sexting” and “cyber bullying” and see for yourself why you may have the need to know what is going on with your phone you are allowing your child to use.
- Computers – Keep it in a public place in the house and not in a child’s bedroom. (same rule for TVs, by the way) This keeps it open to visual walk-bys by parents at any time and is subject to the same rules as the phone. This is your piece of technology that you are allowing your child to use, so you set the rules. Their usage is not private and you will check their history. Limit time of usage, websites, times of the day or anything else that makes you feel comfortable that they will not be in danger of seeing inappropriate sites and talk to them about what those are. They may click on one by accident and be shocked and overwhelmed by a cascade of images that will pour in on them (this happened to Daughter 1 at about ten years old and was very difficult) and you will need to be prepared to talk about pornography, what it is and the harm it does. Also, teach them about what to do when something starts a series of pop-ups like that (shut the computer down!) and don’t be surprised if they are very upset.
- Instant Messaging, Skype, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, etc.: Consider the child’s age before allowing them to have an account. This is the earliest and easiest way for cyber bullying to get started and you will want to read about it and talk about it with your child before allowing them to sign up. Then again, make it very clear that their conversations will not be private. You can at any time pull up their conversation history so he or she would be wise to inform their friends that they have POS (parents over shoulder) big time. This will cut down on the profanity, sex talk and bullying activity from the beginning.
- Facebook, MySpace, or other social networks: By the time they are old enough to sign up for this, they have figured out a lot of things (like how to wipe a history in a computer, etc.) and unless you are their “friend,” they can cut you out of the loop. This is where the real parenting comes in. You must start early and teach well to make them aware that everything they put out there on the Internet is permanent. If they go to a party and someone takes a picture of them with a beer in their hand and they are not of legal drinking age – guess what? Future employers and other interested parties will see that someday, some way. They don’t even have to be drinking at the party – if they are there and other kids are…guilt by association! Sexually suggestive poses, profanity, poor grammar, mean things said about authority figures…it is all there for someone to discover and potentially can harm them and their future plans.
- The cardinal rule for social networks is, “If you wouldn’t say it directly to the person, in front of a job interviewer or college admissions officer, don’t say it or post it!” But every year, the same silly stuff happens and good kids miss out on great opportunities because they have presented themselves badly through their social networking presence. All you can do is warn your child, and point it out when there are news stories about it, but ultimately he or she will make the choice and I fear that our technology will make all of this more transparent as time goes on.
- Blogs: Awesome place for self-expression, but seriously, the same rules apply. This is not a journal. There is no lock and key and you cannot simply hide it under your pillow where no one but you will ever see it. Some kids seem to think that is the case and will write hideously inappropriate things that they will regret in years to come, but it will be too late. It is out there and someone may have saved it, copied it to something else, sampled it, or whatever.
Again, you may want to teach your kids not to write things on the Internet that they would not want the person they are writing about, an admissions counselor, a job interviewer or their mother or father to read! Any of those scenarios can happen and if they have to pour out vitriol and angry things to clear their head – that is what a journal is for. They can always burn it if they choose to later.
So, does this sound like your child has no privacy?
Perhaps, but your goal in these rules and conversations about them is to communicate to them how incredibly vulnerable they are when they go online. Anyone can be anyone online and the person who seems like a really cool girl their age in a chat room can actually be a 45-year-old pedophile just trying to lure them to a get-together that they may or may not survive. It can be as harmless as a cruel joke or as vicious as a virus that wipes out your hard drive and all of your entire family’s hard work. We take all the precautions we can and we teach “stranger danger” in a whole new way to this generation because they are dealing with more threats from different areas than we ever did. Keep talking with your children and encourage them to be very wary of new people they don’t know who claim to know them or be friends of friends.
Teach them to be a bit cynical when it comes to computers; to ask questions first and click second. Introduce them to snopes.com or similar sites to debunk some of the idiocy they will receive from friends who are more gullible and encourage them to always ask you about something if they are suspicious of it at all.
You can have some great conversations as they get older and raise savvy computer users who understand the technology, use it to their advantage and don’t let it take advantage of them.