Online Growth for Kids

May 4, 2015

Keeping tabs on our children’s activity in real life is tough enough, but with today’s highly connected online world, many parents feel “out of control”. We all know that children are naturally inquisitive and as they get older, want to test parental boundaries, no matter what the boundaries are.

There are a variety of strategies available to parents who want to allow their children to benefit from today’s connected world. I think the best way of approaching the issue is to create a loose and fluid plan that takes into account your family’s typical online access situation, the age and temperament of your child(ren), and the level of curation you are likely to have time to provide.

Start with the things you now allow them to do, and then think about the age where you would be comfortable letting them have more freedom or discretion to direct their own activity.

There are a lot of new services on the market to help you manage your child’s online activity, but they all require your time and attention to be useful. Simply throwing money at this problem may make you feel better for a few moments, but unless you follow through with the “hard” work of actively curating the systems as your child grows and their horizons expand, you’ll actually be training your child to circumvent your wishes.

Sketch out an “Online Growth” plan for each child.

Start with the things you now allow them to do, and then think about the age where you would be comfortable letting them have more freedom or discretion to direct their own activity.

Younger children are perfectly fine with games and educational programs that are delivered inside curated “walled gardens” like Famigo or Zoodles. You can use the apps along with your child or get them started and then let them play without worrying.

As they get older, children will want to self-direct and you can then switch over to “training wheels” type services that set up boundaries that will keep your child within areas that you deem safe, but will allow them the freedom to explore on their own. Some good examples of these services include Qustodio, Norton Family, and SafeEyes.

Teach your kids about online safety and etiquette.

Even if you could do it (you probably can’t), simply preventing children from accessing the online world will not work. It is everywhere, in friend’s homes and smartphones, at school, and of course in your own home.

The best way to prepare your child for a world online is to make sure they understand what privacy is, why it is important. Manners and etiquette count too – being kind to others online, what bullying is, and how to deal with it. There are some wonderful resources for helping kids understand the risks and benefits of online at StaySafeOnline, Common Sense Media, and Kids Online Privacy Camp.

We’ve covered games and apps, etiquette, bullying and privacy. What about social networks?

Facebook estimates that it has 7 million accounts that are being operated by children under 13. Of course their legal terms of service specifically say this is not allowed, but there is not really any way this policy could be enforced.

If your family wants to use social networking to keep in touch with distant relatives or grandparents, specific social networks that are created for this purpose may be safer than just using Facebook. Because Facebook explicitly disclaims children using its service, there are virtually no features that would allow you to curate your child’s participation.

Examples of family-friendly social networks include FamilyWall and JustFamily. Both give you a lot of control over who can see your posts and feature mobile apps which make sharing much easier. Unfortunately these non-Facebook services mean your family will have to create accounts to be able to participate.

How can all this great stuff be free?

In general, if the service is offered to you “free”, you can expect to be offered upgraded service or advertising as the service tries to generate revenues. Paid services such as Famigo are much more upfront about their intentions and after paying their annual fee, you should expect not to see ads or excessive marketing.

Technology moves fast, so be prepared to revisit your plan and make changes if some new online game or website offers enough benefit to allow your child to use it before you planned. Our children are growing up with these technologies and are able to absorb and use them much more quickly than we are.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.

Written by

Roy Smith

Roy Smith is founder and CEO of AgeCheq, a company that innovates within the intersection of privacy and mobile devices, providing the mobile app industry with solutions for transparency and compliance.