The old adage that “the only constant is change” is especially true for technology. It’s staggering to think about how much the tech landscape has evolved in just a matter of a few decades, and even the last few years. Most adults have adapted to technology over time. Our children, however, are true digital natives—exposed to technology from birth and inundated with it at every turn.
It can be daunting to introduce children to technology and teach them best practices and how to be safe, responsible citizens on the Internet. The key is starting the conversation early to help instill good digital habits in our kids from the start.
We’ve written before about the importance of familiarizing yourself with parental controls, setting boundaries for screen time and teaching children to manage a healthy online presence. Here are some of the most valuable topics to discuss with children as they adopt technology and learn skills for online safety.
Online behavior and cyberbullying
You may have already explained “The Golden Rule” to your children. Treating others as we wish to be treated is one of the fundamental guideposts of humanity. It’s a concept that is equally important to put into practice on the Internet.
Too many children (and adults) hide behind the cloak of anonymity on the Internet and use it as an opportunity to bully and belittle others. Spreading negativity is much easier behind a screen than it is face to face, but the consequences are just as dire—for both the victim and the bully.
According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, cyberbullying leads to higher rates of depression and anxiety, sleep disorders, physical ailments like headaches and digestive problems, and a higher risk of suicide.
While currently there are no federal laws against bullying and cyberbullying, in many states it falls under harassment law and is subject to school policies and procedures that could include exclusion from extracurricular activities, suspension, or expulsion.
Teach children from a very early age that it’s just as important to be kind online as it is face-to-face. Model proper online behavior and good digital citizenship to children, and have open conversations with them about recognizing and reporting bullies.
Trusted and safe content
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of information online. We can’t depend on our kids to assure us whether or not a website or game is appropriate. We must check for ourselves. Many sites may look unassuming, but can be full of harmful content that is anything but appropriate for children.
While it’s important to talk to older children about age-appropriate content and what sites and apps they spend their time on, we should take an active role in monitoring what young children are consuming online. Allow only reputable sites by implementing parental controls and explain why those controls are needed (and meant) to protect them.
In addition to screen time limits, filter which apps children can access on their devices (and how much time they are allowed to spend on each one). On some platforms, you can also set up content and privacy restrictions to define which content ratings your kids have exposure to, and protect them from explicit songs, videos, books, and apps.
Parental controls differ for iOS and Android devices, so know your options for the devices your children have access to. Don’t forget about Internet-connected technology like smart speakers, smart TVs and digital voice assistants. Often time devices such as these might get overlooked since they aren’t considered to be a “traditional” device.
Digital footprint management
One of the most important lessons to instill in kids is that anything posted online lasts forever. Many children (and a surprising number of adults) are under the false assumption that if they delete something, it goes away. This is simply not the case. Whether it’s through a screenshot, web archives or a secondary storage location, posts and content can come back to haunt us later in life.
While a child’s digital footprint may seem innocent and harmless when they are young, they need to understand that potentially negative or inappropriate posts can have serious consequences later in life. This is especially true as they go through school, apply for colleges, and seek employment.
As parents, we can help protect our children’s digital footprints by being acutely aware of what we post about them from an early age. Be careful what you share about your children and teach by example—share carefully and think twice before each and every post.
We’ve already talked about teaching our kids about cyberbullying and good digital citizenship, but it’s equally important to instruct them on what to do if they are on the receiving end of bullying or online threats. Encourage them to come to you immediately if they experience something negative or threatening online.
As our children come to an age where they explore and join social media platforms, they need to be able to recognize fake profiles and potential phishing efforts by predatory adults. Talk to your children about the importance of privacy settings and why they are necessary.
Scams are pervasive on the Internet. Unscrupulous companies and phishing ploys are getting more sophisticated and convincing all the time. As your children get older and have more autonomy online, teach them how to spot and avoid scams. If they suspect that an ad or message is strange or misleading, instruct them to come to you first, before clicking on or interacting with the post.
Reiterate the importance of not sharing personal information via email or on social media unless you give permission for your children to do so, and you’ve verified that the sender is a trusted source. Strong passwords and data security also becomes an important lesson as your children get old enough to have their own accounts for certain sites.
Enjoy the moment
Lastly, remember that it’s easy to get caught up in technology—both the bad and the good aspects of it. As your children grow and become more involved in social sharing platforms, they may be tempted to capture and share every moment online, without stopping to savor the moment as it’s happening.
Model a lifestyle to your children that encourages them to live in the moment and enjoy life without the constant presence of technology. Disconnect from tech during meals, conversations, and family time so that everyone can focus on building healthy, happy relationships.