Today’s children are the first “born with a phone in their hands”, not knowing what it’s like to live without web-connected devices close at hand.
That makes today’s parents the first generation to have to navigate rules and boundaries for their kids around internet use. For many mums and dads, that’s a scary prospect. You could be forgiven for thinking you and your kids are being used as guinea pigs.
Given that we can’t put internet-resistant shields up in our backyards, or move to a wi-fi-free desert island, many parents are crying out for a little guidance.
We asked psychologist Tony Ritchie, who has extensive experience with children’s and family counselling, for some tips on how to protect children from the worst of the web.
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1 – Set Clear Boundaries on Technology
When it comes to setting boundaries on screen time, internet and smartphone use, the patterns you set up right from the start are very important, said Tony. Set clear limits right from the start, and increase them over time.
“Pay particular attention to mobile phone use, and set clear limits on this,” Tony said. “It’s far harder to wind back mobile phone use, than to allow more.”
2 – Limit Places Where Your Kids Can Access the Web
It’s much easier for kids to view risky content if they’re in a private place. Tony’s advice is to set rules around where they can use their devices, laptops and gaming consoles.
“Limit internet access to public areas of the house only – such as the kitchen, dining table or lounge room – and remove use of technology from private areas like bedrooms, toilet and bathrooms,” he said.
“And make a family rule about technology being placed in a central location in the evenings for their devices to be charged.”
3 – Use Available Technology to Help With Limits and Monitoring
There are plenty of apps these days to help with time limits and other restrictions. If you’re not tech-savvy, find a friend who is, and get some restrictions in place on both internet and devices.
Apps such as Screen Time, Ourpact, Familytime, Web Watcher or Norton Family, can help you monitor and control your childrens’ tech use, without you having to hover over their shoulder every waking moment.
“Discuss any concerns that arise with your child in a supportive and understanding way,” Tony added.
4 – Remember, the Internet Isn’t All Bad
While the web has plenty of unhelpful content to offer, remember that it’s also a great tool for good. Tony’s advice is to encourage internet use for positive purposes, and join in yourself.
Play games with your kids, enjoy appropriate social media with them, watch fun videos with them, and learn new things with together.
5 – Learn About the Apps Your Child Wants to Use
If your child wants to use a social app or play a game you’re not familiar with, don’t simply ban it out of fear of the unknown.
“If you aren’t sure about an app or allowing the use of social media, take the time to understand it, and involve your child in the process of exploring the suitability for them,” said Tony. “Don’t just say ‘no’ or ‘yes’, even if you have a clear opinion. Work through it together first, and then, after you’ve had a discussion, tell them your decision.”
Also, be willing to consider other options.
“You might not be comfortable with your child using Instagram, however there might be another way they could share photos that you are comfortable with,” Tony said. “Take the time to look.”
6 – Prevent Secrecy by Having Open Conversations With Your Kids
Being alarmist and fearful about technology is probably the worst approach you can take. This will only drive your kids’ tech use ‘underground’ and encourage secrecy, said Tony.
“Have open and honest conversations about the great things technology allows, while also discussing the dangers.”
“A fear-mongering approach only results in children feeling misunderstood and not heard,” Tony said. “Have open and honest conversations about the great things technology allows, while also discussing the dangers.”
Build an atmosphere of working together with your kids to manage technology, rather than focusing on punishment.
7 – Encourage Your Kids to be Honest If They See Explicit Content
Sadly it’s almost impossible to completely protect your child from pornography or violent content. Tony’s advice is to prepare children by encouraging honesty and openness.
“Recognise that your child will come across inappropriate material…and rather than getting them into trouble for this and shaming them, use it as an opportunity to discuss healthy choices, and the dangers of accessing inappropriate content,” he said.
“Help your child understand that even if they’re being careful, it’s common to come across things that are scary or sexual – and that it’s important they talk with you about anything that troubles them.”
Reassure them that they won’t be punished. This will help them to be honest and share with you if the need arises.
8 – Teach Your Kids About Healthy Relationships
Talk with your kids about healthy friendships, especially in relation to social media. It’s best to be specific about tricky issues, rather than shying off the tough conversations, says Tony.
Don’t be backwards about issues like stranger-danger, sexting, and photo-sharing online. Help them to think about what true friendship is.
9 – Encourage Your Child to be Open About Their Online Friendships
When your child is old enough to use social media (in many cases, 12), encourage them to be open with you about their online friendships and conversations, advises Tony.
“Some young people are engaging in complex conversations about self-harm, bullying, self-esteem issues, and suicidal ideation, and are looking to each other for support without an adult’s awareness of the situation,” Tony said. “This is placing a lot of strain on young people who aren’t equipped for such conversations.
“Prior to allowing social media use, discuss with your child appropriate conversations and boundaries, and ask them to talk with you if this situation arises. Encourage them to help friends who are dealing with tough issues, to seek extra support through school, or by contacting their parents if appropriate.”
10 – Set an Example of Appropriate Internet Use Yourself
To guide your children in healthy internet use, you need to model it yourself, says Tony. Telling kids to put their phones away when you’re on Instagram for hours yourself, won’t go down too well. If you’ve got bad habits, it’s not too late to change.
Set some goals around screen-time and social media limits, and show your kids that you’re working on healthy boundaries too. Work together as a family to keep each other on track.
11 – Provide Non-Tech Alternatives
Tony’s final tip is to create family fun that isn’t based around screens.
“Provide alternatives completely independent from tech use,” he said. “Invest in a basketball hoop, go for a bushwalk, ride bikes together, play family board games, set up an ongoing competition.
“A lot of poor internet use occurs when young people have lots of unmonitored time online, and families become comfortable with people just doing their own thing.”
Remember, there was a time before smart phones and the internet. Think back to the things you used to enjoy as a child. You’ll probably be surprised to rediscover how much fun you can have together without wi-fi.