The Internet can be a powerful tool for learning and engaging with the world. But with great power comes great risk. Unsupervised Internet use by children and teens can expose them to dangerous, inappropriate information.
Children’s Hospital Colorado’s own Philip O’Donnell, MD, a specialist in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, offers strategies for parents to provide a safe, structured environment for Internet use by children and teens.
What are parents getting right when it comes to Internet use by their children?
In the past, teens have been much more aware than their parents about what is possible online. I think that today’s parents are becoming increasingly savvy about the online world and more aware of the pitfalls.
How can parents monitor their child’s online activities without intruding in their personal space?
Always consider the developmental level of the child. As children get older, they still need supervision, but with an age-appropriate amount of independence and autonomy. The more open and honest that parents can be about the risks associated with certain behaviors, the more prepared their child will be to manage difficult situations on and offline. These discussions promote continued open communication within the family.
It’s also important to set appropriate limits around technology use:
- Limit access to the Internet or technology to spaces in the home and make some spaces in the home technology-free.
- Be open with your child about why you feel the need to monitor his or her online activities.
What can you do if you suspect that your child is being bullied online?
Always have a proactive plan. Prepare your child with the understanding that if someone online is making them uncomfortable, it is not OK. But, the right response from you, as a parent, depends on the person doing the bullying.
Most often the bully is someone that your child knows personally, typically through school. If that is the case, it is important that you work with other parents or with the school to decide on an appropriate intervention. Schools are taking this kind of thing very seriously and normally welcome the involvement of parents.
It can be challenging if your child is being bullied online by someone that they don’t personally know, because it is not always easy to figure out who’s behind the bullying. In this situation it’s important that parents educate themselves about the policies of each website or platform. They often have rules in place to intervene when users engage in bullying behavior.
It is also critical that parents educate their kids about the dangers of establishing relationships with people that they meet online. In general, children and adolescents should never meet with someone offline that they have met only in an Internet context.
What is the appropriate age to introduce your children to social media?
I think that parents want to be protective of a child’s privacy. My recommendation is that kids really shouldn’t be using social media independently before adolescence. There is too much potential for their privacy to be compromised and for them to have negative experiences.
How do you talk to your child or teen about the permanence of their online actions?
I think it is a hard concept for them to understand because with technology right now, there really is no such thing as “gone.” Once something is posted or communicated online, it likely continues to exist somewhere, even when deleted from its original location.
In terms of cognitive development, teens, and even young adults, often have difficulty grasping the long-term consequences of their behavior. They also tend to act impulsively. The short-term gain of forwarding something that they might find funny in the moment can lead to serious long-term problems.
With regard to legal consequences, in some circumstances simply passing along harmful or threatening information electronically can make a user just as responsible as the person originally posting it. If there is something that your child wouldn’t say or do offline, they shouldn’t do it online. It can, and usually does, stay with them forever.
What are the biggest mistakes that you see parents make when it comes to teens and the Internet?
Many parents are not providing enough supervision for online activities. We have a generation of kids who are growing up online, with technology fully integrated into their lives. For a lot of kids, the online world is an extension of their social world, so from an early age, monitoring is imperative.
What are some warning signs that your child might be developing a potentially troubling relationship with technology?
One of the first and most troubling warning signs is when kids disengage from more typical social interaction in favor of spending more time "with technology."
Parents also need to be aware of the kinds of material their children are accessing online. When a child is routinely accessing inappropriate or concerning materials online, this is a problem in itself, but it can also translate to similar real-world activities and behaviors with serious consequences.
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