Needed: 2015 Digital Rules-of-the-Road For Kids’ New Smart Devices

Marti Weston
January 5, 2015

After the December holidays, lots of digital kids will begin using new handheld devices, but as these new gadgets come out of their boxes, parents need to update or introduce a family digital device action plan. A family’s plan is similar to the rules-of-the road guide that is so critical to new drivers.

These days most new smartphones, iPads, tablets, music players, computers, laptops, notebooks, and video games are connected to the exciting, but rough and tumble world of the Internet, and much of the time these devices are used in places where adults are not present. So sometime during the first week of gadget ownership – or better yet, as the devices come out of their boxes – parents and children need to sit together and review digital behavior and expectations.

To help come up with your expectations, check out a comprehensive list of Internet sites with information about family digital life contracts and agreements. Many parents include these agreements in the box so the conversation begins as soon as a child opens the gift.

Even as a youngster thrills to the capabilities of a new device, the potential for digital mistakes and judgment errors exists because young people are still developing the skill and discipline to think before acting. A short, sarcastic comment or text can be perceived as cyber-bullying when it reaches its destination. Less than thoughtful words, sent to one person, can be forwarded easily and embarrassingly to many others. Thus the right time to talk about acceptable use, privacy, and intention versus impact is when the device is new.

A family digital action plan – an agreement, contract, or list of guidelines between you and your child – anticipates potential issues that can arise and lays out specific expectations, guiding children as they use their new devices in the wider, less supervised, digital world. One of my favorite digital parenting resources is Janis Burley Hofmann’s 2012 letter to her son, explaining, in detail, his responsibilities and her expectations.

Parents, whether they possess weak or strong digital skills, become mentors of their children’s digital lives. Devorah Heitner, PhD, at Raising Digital Natives, emphasizes that mentoring is a far more successful digital parenting strategy than intensive monitoring.

A Few Points to Emphasize in Conversations With Your Child

  • A telephone, e-mail, texting device, iPad, tablet, etc. is not a toy, even though it sometimes feels like one.
  • A digital device connected to the digital world decreases privacy. It is too easy for pre-teens and adolescents to think that activities are completely private.
  • All digital activities leave digital footprints. In fact, since even charging groceries at the grocery store leaves digital footprints, keeping a record of all the digital footprints made for one day can be fun for the whole family to learn the extent of individuals’ digital footprints.
  • Negative, mean, gossipy, or cruel comments via phone, text, or e-mail travel rapidly to other people. Reminder: If you cannot say it face-to-face, do not say it in digital form.
  • Sarcasm in a message or text on one end can seem like bullying when another person reads it.
  • Digital cameras need to be used wisely. Before sending or forwarding an image, take ten seconds to wonder if anyone in your family might think an image is unsuitable. Then think again.
  • No one has the right to use an individual’s image without that person’s permission. Protect your image and the images of your friends
  • Avoid by-standing. If a person uses digital devices to cyber-bully, get help for the bullied student, anonymously if necessary, but right away.
  • Online anonymity is not a pre-adolescent or teenager’s friend, and it frequently causes problems.
  • Intentions matter less than impact in digital life.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.

Written by

Marti Weston

Marti Weston is an academic technology specialist at Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. An exciting part of her job is offering opportunities that help teachers and parents learn and understand more about the 21st Century digital lives that children take for granted.

Marti concentrates on identifying learning resources, helping students, teachers, and parents develop the skills to critically evaluate the online materials that they use, and encouraging community members to think about digital behavior as it relates to privacy, personal information, media literacy, and individual responsibility.

Read Marti’s blogs for teachers and parents at MediaTechParenting, and at Discover Your Child’s Digital World, a “class-on-a-blog” for parents.