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Navigating the Online Landscape With Your Kids

I would call myself a relatively tech/social-media savvy person. However, when it came to walking my children through the online landscape and integrating it into our family life, it proved to be both challenging and concerning. Parenting is challenging during the tween/teen years as it is, and this added element is tricky. I represent one of the first generations of parents that are raising digital children (millennials/generation z) and in many ways, I feel like I’m winging it. But then, isn’t parenting a lot like that anyway?  

What I find most difficult is the added influences that are outside the control of your family home, however that still impact your child/family. This is what is challenging about this stage in general, and the online space is no exception. My eldest child will be 18 next year, and I have thought about what has been effective in our home. It starts with the mindset. 

1. The Online Landscape IS part of our World

There is a lot of negatively around the online space, including concerns surrounding bullying, grooming and addiction. These are legitimate concerns, however I think it is important as a parent to understand that the online space IS part of our children’s world and not to approach it with negativity as a base assumption. There are many amazing things the Internet has given us (like Google search!). Sure, it’s another element of parenting to navigate, but in my experience, intentional parenting encompasses the values for navigating online issues anyway (so the simple answer is just to keep parenting intentionally).

My background and interest is in Sociology, and it often taps into other disciplines such as phycology. One physiologist, Harry Grotevant, talks about the key phase in adolescence where children’s horizons open up and they negotiate within their social context to strengthen their identity. It is a complex process, however, I have simplified the essence in the diagram below. 

identity formation

Consider what children form in childhood (often within the home environment), including their personality, experiences and family situation. During the adolescent years, their world opens up, through wider social interaction, and also developmentally (their ability to comprehend abstract concepts is enhanced). It is VITAL they are able to negotiate within their social environment to build a strong identity, that will in turn, act as a compass for decision-making in the future. 

Interesting research shows (for more information, read about Erik Erikson’s Identity Status Model) that children who actively grapple with this stage (which may include some form of identity/decision crisis as part of the process), end up being highly successful, satisfied and confident adults.  The reason being, the grappling with who they are helps them develop a strong core which acts as a compass for their lives. So, for example, when my 14 year old is chatting to me about what subjects she is choosing, she is participating in this process. In this way, it is important for her to try a subject, and see if it resonates with what she already knows about herself, and also, this process informs what she hasn’t discovered about herself yet (whether she really enjoys a subject or the opposite). 

What does all that have to do with the Internet though? For me, it is important to understand that within that orange space (the context in which our children are developing) in our children’s lives, the Internet is an integrated part. Therefore, on the outset, I must approach navigating this space with my kids with this in mind.  The Internet is not necessarily bad or good, but there are decisions that need to be made, so the focus for me as a parent is more about helping my children become confident decision makers (in relation to their own person). 

2. Not Everyone

A couple of years ago, I went to a grade 7 meeting at school, and one of the teachers said, “In the upcoming years, when your child says ‘everyone’, just know that it is never ‘everyone'”.  The teacher gave some examples:

  • Everyone is going to the party.
  • Everyone has an iPhone.
  • Everyone does Snapchat.
  • Everyone drinks alcohol when then are 16.

Interestingly, at the time, I thought, of course it’s not everyone — common sense — however to my surprise, I have found that piece of advice extremely useful over the years.  Whenever I hear “everyone” from my children, it become a mental marker for me as a parent to stop and explore that further. Just recently, my daughter (12) told me that “everyone” has an iPhone (whereas she has a ALCATEL Pixi 3.5). I asked her if one of her close friends was part of that “everyone”, and she was not, and soon, we established that, indeed, it was not everyone. I have learned to make my own decisions for my family, not based on a percieved current movements. 

3. Fast Facts

The Australian Communications & Media Authority has interesting stats about teen Internet usage in Australia. In particular, check out the Research Snapshot – Aussie teens and kids online. The article has a lot of interesting graphs and diagrams. While I don’t use this sort of information for a guide for how we use the Internet in our family, it is useful to get a snapshot of the landscape you’re wading into. I’ve included a few of the graphics below.

Key indicators of Aussie teenagers online, June 2015

The research shows that most teens have access to the Internet at home. What has increased dramatically over the years is the number of teens who have a smart phone (with access to the Internet).

Online activities undertaken by teen internet users, June 2011 and June 2015 (%)

It’s important to know that teens use the Internet for a variety of reasons (not just for watching TV or games), including banking, research and communication. 

Times during the day teens most frequently go online (%)

Not surprisingly, it is during the evening when children are using the Internet the most.

4. A Process for Navigating The Online Space

As I look back, there has been a bit of a process to navigating the online space with my kids. 

  • Relationship is central

I will admit, that navigating the online landscape with your children can be tricky at times. However, if there is one thing to continue to focus on, it’s relationship. It always has to be central…and really, the rest works itself out.

  • Entitlement adjustment

With all my tweens (done this three times so far), there has been a moment where I have had to address entitlement. I write more about it here (under point 3). When it comes to navigating social media, often in late primary school, there is an expectation that getting a phone means getting an iPhone. I address why this may be problematic further below.

  • Learn alongside them

When my daughter first got Instagram, I said to her, “I have never parented in this way before, and I’m not sure how to navigate this, so it’s something we need to learn together.” I find teens to be extremely gracious when you’re honest with them. This is one of the most significant pieces of advice I could give any parent: don’t be afraid to learn with your child about how to navigate the online landscape. You truly don’t need to have all the answers. Just be open and honest as you negotiation through this phase. 

  • Instil responsibility in your children

Right at the start, I mentioned that helping my children being good decision-makers is one of the most important things in this process. In this way, making good choices with interactions/decisions online is similar to the myriad of other choice teens have to learn to make. 

  • Patience & consistency  

In saying that, it’s also important to understand that while teens are savvy creatures, they don’t have the life experience or skills to always make good choices for themselves (and that’s okay!). In my experience, there will be issues that need parental guidance and intervention. Just keep on keeping on. 

5. Popular Channels

We have an open-device policy, meaning I know the passwords and can check devices anytime. In saying that, there is just no way to stay abreast about every single thing about the online landscape.  However, I have boiled down a few key learning areas I focus on in regards to popular channels.

Facebook: 

Interestedly, less teens engage in Facebook these days, however it is still a big player.

  • Fact check

With Facebook, I think it’s important to teach children to fact check what comes to “news” in their feed. The amount of false reporting is staggering, and it is important our children learn to be critical thinkers with good research skills to back it up. Even a simple check with Snopes before sharing or escalating an issue is a good idea. 

  • Vaguebooking

This is probably just a pet-dislike of mine, however I do think there is an underlying teaching moment. Vaugebooking is posting a status that is intentionally vague in order to produce a response. So for example, I’ve seen statuses such as “Some people are horrible” or “Worst day ever”. I have no issue with people sharing the joys and struggles of their lives, however I don’t see this sort of (vague) approach as useful or helpful. Someone asked me once then how to respond to something like that. Personally, I think caring for people is important, and if a close friend did post something like that, I wouldn’t add to the public conversation, however I would privately text the person to see if they were okay. In our family, we really, REALLY try and avoid unnecessary drama, and that includes real life and online.

Instagram:

Instagram is popular with tweens and teens. 

  • Curated life

Instagram accounts showcase a curated life. Even accounts that claim to be “real and raw” are still curated to be such. It is really important that teens navigate this space with this base assumption. 

  • Invest in real-life relationships

One of the great things about the Internet is they can be an extension of real life. I have made close real life friends that I have connected with through the Internet. I think it is important to make an effort with people in the flesh. That doesn’t mean not enjoying or engaging with people on social media, but I do want to encourage my children to extend that and spend time investing in real life relationships. 

Snapchat:

I don’t know a lot about Snapchat. I tried it for a little bit, but just couldn’t really get it — aside from the filters — so ended up deleting the app. However, I do know that it is extremely popular with my teen’s group of friends. That said, we have decided not to engage in Snapchat in our family at this point. 

  • It’s not private

One of the draws of Snapchat is the sending function that disappears after a set time period. However, it is important to understand that nothing sent via the Internet is really private. Sure, it may stay private, but it may not (for example, screen shots can be taken and shared). It’s important to keep that in mind.

Games:

Games are not just games anymore. They have become social (for example Minecraft & Fortnite). Children connect online and participate in the games together, chatting and strategising along the way. I have found navigating this aspect the most tricky with my son, because it seems that is the way that a lot of his friends socialise. Still, I never rush into allowing my children to participate in things just because “everyone” (it’s never everyone) is dong it. However, it is also important to take into account the realities too (that a child may feel left out because the majority of the children are participating in a particular game). My biggest concert with interconnected games is my children connecting with people we don’t know. The reality is, predators do target children through games. On the other hand, during the holidays, all my children will sit in the lounge room and engage in a joint game. It makes me laugh when I hear them say things like, or “Okay everyone, it’s time to go home and go to bed”, while playing Minecraft. I see this as a positive thing.

6. Red Flags

There are a few things to watch out for.

  • Behaviour change: I remember this one issue (took me a while to work out what was happening) when another child was messaging my child (through school chat). I won’t go into details, but the texts were about (fictitious) disturbing events happening in her life, and it greatly distressed my extremely kindhearted daughter. Once I discovered what was going on, I could tell quite quickly how fake it all was (from an adult’s perspective) and the school had to be involved to sort it out. However, my point here, I noticed a behaviour change in my daughter which alerted me to investigate things further. Behaviour change during the tween/teen age can be normal so it can be tricky, but I say, trust your gut and if something doesn’t seem right, investigate further. Other behaviour issues such as lying can be another red flag for what might be going on under the surface.

 

  • Apps & Games with online chat function: I have already mentioned this, apps and games with online chat function are a concern for me. One contact shared a concerning story. Her daughter (7) downloaded a music app because she loved to sing (the parent didn’t know it had a chat function). The day after the app was installed, the child was contacted by someone who started engaging with her, and asked her to be his girlfriend. Amazingly in this case, her mum saw she was acting strangely, and grabbed the iPad from her, and a few minutes later, an extremely graphic video was sent. It’s just so hard to know which apps and games have this chat function, but a good place to start is to check Common Sense Media, because there is often information and warnings from other parents.

 

  • Inability to have fun & be creative without devices: This is another red flag for me. If my children can’t have fun without devices (and are showing signs of obsession), I know there is a balance issue.  I have noticed in my own family that some children are more susceptible to device obsession than others. The other thing I have noticed is, really, the only way to combat it in some cases is to take the device completely out of the picture. Creating specific time periods for device usage etc. can be a good idea, but for some children, it only works for a few weeks, and doesn’t change the underlying problematic mindset.  It really is amazing how their behaviour changes (positively) when the device isn’t in the picture. This doesn’t have to be forever, but if required (especially for primary-aged children), don’t be afraid to remove the device completely. And I’m not just talking a week, one time, we did this for 6 months, and the changes in that particular child was incredible. For younger children, sometimes you need to be their compass. 

7. Practical Tools & Tips

Below are some practical tools and tips that have proved to be useful in our family (which may or may not to useful/applicable for your family).
  • Adopt roles
I am the default parent in our family, so much of the day-to-day interactions (and therefore decisions) are with me. However, we have found it extremely useful to designate certain roles when it comes to managing the online landscape. We aim to parent in partnership, however in some aspects, we each take ownership over certain areas (and the other parent supports that). So my husband is in control of the Internet access in our home and the kids need to chat to him about access. This take the pressure off me, and I can say, “well you have to chat to dad about that because that’s his area”. I’ll explain about how we organise Internet access further below. 
 
  • Establish a family code for movies & games

We use Kids in Mind and Common Sense Media to work out what we feel comfortable for the children watch (at different ages). Both websites are informative when it comes to deciding what sort of content you want your children digesting. They go into sexual context, language, drug / substance use and violence. 

  • Reconsider giving a young child old iPhone (yet)
Sometimes younger children (11-12) do need phones. It’s tempting to give a young child an old iPhone, however I have found it best to start with a cheaper phone used only for calling and text before stepping up into smart phones later. Again, for me it comes down to entitlement; I don’t want my children assuming they are entitled to an expensive ($1000) phone. From my perceptive, if they really want an iPhone (or equivalent) in the future, they can save up for and manage the payments themselves (or as a gift for a responsible older child). We recently gave our 17-year-old her first (secondhand) iPhone.
  • Use a filter

We use a program called Koalasafe, which acts as both a monitoring system and filter. Each child has their own user profile, and this all can be managed through your smartphone. Below is an example of how you can allocate Internet times for different days. It’s great because this way you can allocate different timetables/privileges for different children, depending on their age etc.

  • Establish a Family Social Media Plan

Establishing a family social media plan is a great idea! It helps you think about these sorts of areas:

* Screen Free Zones: for example, no screens in bedrooms

* Screen Free Times

* Device Curfew

* Choose & Diversify Your Media: use media for all kinds of things, like looking up interesting scientific facts

* Balancing Online & Offline Time

* Manners: devices at the table?

* Safety: for example, do not be on iPhone or iPad while crossing the road

Healthy Children have a useful questionnaire to help build a plan. It challenged me to consider things I had not thought about. I recommend doing it as a family and having a discussion about what everyone feels is reasonable and important.

While I find having a general social media plan useful as a base, one of the biggest things I have learned is you need to stay flexible and also parent to each child’s individual needs. Being an inflexible tyrant about these sorts of things is never helpful! Plus, family life changes so quickly, and you have stay relevant. 

  • Parent to child’s individual needs

For example, while we have a general rule about not having screens in rooms, we have been quite flexible about that, especially with our daughter in grade 12. We live in a smallish house, and she studies a lot, and needs to spend significant time in her room with her computer. 

Another example: one of my children is extremely creative and uses the computer for all kinds of things, including her creative endeavours. Check out this digital drawing she did for me on the computer. If I was a stickler for inflexible rules, she may not have the freedom to explore these types of useful endeavours. 

Another daughter (who does a lot of extracurricular activities in the afternoon) finds it works best to do her homework (often needing the iPad) first thing in the morning in her room. So yes, while we have a general guide for Internet usage in our home, attitude is the most important.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

In summary, the Internet is integrated into the fabric of our children’s world. It’s part of how they learn, work, socialise and relax. Navigating this space with your kids can be tricky at times, but like anything to do with parenting, it’s about being intentional while keeping relationship at the centre. The focus is about equipping my children the best I can to be good choice-makers so they can feel confident about navigating the world around them.

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