With summer vacation looming (but not fast enough for the kids!), parents are once again confronted with the question of how to keep their children occupied, entertained, and safe during the long break. The challenge of keeping kids safe is a little more complicated than it used to be. Parental warnings used to be limited to fairly concrete and well-understood experiences: Don't play in the street! Look both ways before you cross! Don't play ball near the windows!
But technology has made parenting much more complicated, particularly when it comes to safety warnings. After all, the basic function of cars and streets haven't changed much in the past 100 years or so, so we all pretty much have a handle on the potential risks. Each new type of hardware, software, online service, or mobile app, however, seems to introduce a host of unforeseen and unpredictable risks. Without question, it is a daunting time to be a parent.
The situation, fortunately, is not hopeless. There are several tools, all completely free, that parents can use to help keep their kids safe online.
The most powerful of these tools is communication. Talk with your kid(s) in an age-appropriate way about the benefits and risks of technology from the moment they starting it (or even a little before). At first, the conversations will focus on the physical aspects of the device (Don't hit it! No, peanut butter is NOT a good idea! Keep it out of the bathtub!), but all too quickly, you'll need to start focusing on what your children are doing with their devices (or yours).
A lot of companies are working on creating walled digital spaces to limit what kids can do with devices, but you'll discover quickly that it is all too easy for kids to escape. A habit of ongoing dialogue with your kids will make it easier to understand what they are trying to do (or what they have done) when they use devices.
Closely related to the habit of ongoing communication is the setting of clear boundaries and expectation. There are a couple of reasons why this important. First, boundaries help kids regulate their own behavior and provide them with a sense of security about what is and is not acceptable. Obviously, kids will test those boundaries (to varying degrees), but without clear boundaries, they won't know where or when to stop. And second, it's inherently unfair to punish kids for misbehavior if you haven't been clear about what is and is not acceptable online behavior.
In order to set clear boundaries, you need to understand the technology enough to decide what is and is not acceptable to you and your spouse or partner. It can be daunting to try to keep up, but remember, you don't need to understand EVERY new piece of hardware, social media site, or app; you can just focus on the ones in which your children are interested.
But that highlights another issue. You need to educate yourself on an ongoing basis about the technology your children are using. It is particularly important to check their devices (all of them!) to see what apps their using. If you see something unfamiliar, ask them about it and do an Internet search.
A former First Lady and now presidential candidate once famously said that it takes a village to raise a child. The World Wide Web was in its infancy when she said that and cell phones hadn't even been invented, but she was right. The only way for parents to survive the challenges of #digitalparenting is to band together. In practical terms, this means: 1) talking frequently with other parents about the technology their kids use and the concerns they have; 2) developing common boundaries and rules of use for clusters of families; and 3) talking with teachers and school administrators about the technology popular among kids and advocating for an effective digital curriculum.
Study after study has shown that kids learn a significant percentage of their behavior from observing the adults in their world, and in particular, their parents. If you want your kids to be safe online, model safe behavior. Include them in conversations about the steps you take to be safe, from being careful where you surf to not sharing information with random people. Even better, model technology-free activities like reading, outdoor sports, and non-virtual (i.e., real, live, 3-D) interaction with friends.
Parenting has gotten more complicated and in some ways, much faster-paced, but these basic tools will go a long way to ensuring that you and your children have a safe and enjoyable summer. Have fun!
Cover image courtesy of Flickr.