Speaking as a parent and security expert, Tony Anscombe looks at the challenges, advantages and opportunities that connected kids are exposed to.
As our children grow, we experience, as they do, many different moments that make us proud. Last week I watched my son, currently a junior in high school, dress up in a tuxedo and head off to prom with the graduating class. It reminds me that we only have one year left to enjoy having him with us before his next adventure starts, heading off to college. Whether your kids are toddlers or teenagers, it’s good to remember that we only borrow our children, and that our job is to get them ready for independence.
The generation he is part of is the first of its kind, the always-connected generation. To them it’s as normal as walking or reading. They’ve never experienced a time when you waited to hear news on the TV or read it in tomorrow’s newspaper. His generation lives in real-time, all the time. It’s more normal to text someone than it is to call and actually speak, suggesting that calling just makes you look old. “Old” as we may be, as parents we still have to be there to guide and educate them on being responsible, behaving appropriately and staying safe. What has that journey looked like, especially since we did not grow up “always connected”?
Many experts will explain the downsides and risks of being online, but let’s instead dwell for a moment on the positive and just how awesome the internet is. Whether it’s the interactive apps and toys we’ve used to help him to learn to read, through to classrooms where there is no longer chalk dust, but instead an interactive whiteboard and school-issued tablets used to view historic landmarks in 360-degree tours, rather pictures in a book. A world where you can communicate in real-time regardless of your location and without any reliance on a phone booth or wires, there are truly very few boundaries.
As parents, we want our kids to have a balanced life, of being online while still appreciating the need to have both skills and experiences, such as learning to ride a bike, swim, or the confidence to communicate face to face. Our concerns are not new. Back when the wireless (radio) was invented, I am sure parents told their kids to stop listening to that “box”, in the same way my parents told me I would get square eyes if I watched too much TV.
But controlling that balance can be tricky, especially when our connected kids only know a life that’s online, and it’s the “normal” way to communicate. It’s important that our kids understand device or screen-time is a privilege and not a right. Now, there are some parents who have contracts with their kids stating what is expected of them when using a device, while others do nothing and some block or monitor access.
When thinking about screen time, one of the first things to do is walk around the house and count the numbers of devices that are connected. Many of us forget that games consoles and some toys are now connected devices, so asking your children to put down their phones just to see them pick up other connected devices might not be achieving the goal of achieving a balance.
“As technology evolves, the ability to contain or control the amount of time spent connected will undoubtedly decrease.”
As technology evolves, the ability to contain or control the amount of time spent connected will undoubtedly decrease. The Internet of Things (IoT) is promising to connect our homes, cars and cities. Sensors will inform us about traffic, air and water quality, when we need to order more milk or supplies; the opportunity to automate and inform us about nearly everything we do or experience is no longer science fiction but a near term reality.
In my home, we strike the balance through communication and education, and this has worked well for us. One of the house rules we implement is ‘the basket’, a place where phones live during mealtime and overnight, even if you’re a guest. This preserves conversation at the meal table and means that texting, posting or gaming late at night has never been an issue. The biggest challenge here is can you, as an adult, commit to putting your phone in the basket!
Having an understanding of what your connected kids do online is of critical importance. Whether this comes via parental control software, monitoring internet traffic on the router or only allowing access to devices in public areas where you can keep a watchful eye on them, having oversight that will allow you to open conversations about inappropriate use and behavior is important. For example, having insight and knowing that your child is spending three hours a day on social media should encourage you to have a conversation about time well spent.
Many of these technologies also offer the ability to block content and/or devices. While blocking inappropriate content is a good idea, limiting your kids’ access through blocking could push them to connect via other locations such as public libraries, coffee shops or their friends’ homes. And remember, their smart phones probably have access through the cellular network. My point is that you cannot control their access everywhere all the time, so it’s better to educate them and having the knowledge of what is being accessed. In this way, they will be conscious that they are behaving well wherever they are, making good decisions and that they both have and understand the principles needed to stay safe.
Without trying to oversimplify things, I would suggest there are probably three phases that take place as you prepare your kids for their inevitable independence. The first phase is protective, where they are exploring the online world with big eyes and everything is new; there is an innocence to this phase that is magical. This is the time where you select their internet experience, a whitelist of learning apps, toys and web sites that they can access.
Just like teaching them to cross the road, that first phase is where we do the crossing checks for them, the next phase is where we still cross together but allow them to tell us when it’s safe and we monitor to ensure it is. Adapting this back into technology terms is where we block inappropriate content but allow freedom to explore, removal of the whitelist.
There is that tense moment in every parent’s life – allowing your child to cross the road without your being there. Will they be safe, you ask? Each of our children is different and there is no rule as to when this phase is, but at some point there needs to be trust, for our kids to have their own devices and be independently connected. It does not mean we are no longer responsible, but our role changes to guiding them as and when needed.
In this last phase, a useful tactic we’ve used to keep our son safe is understanding the functionality of the apps he runs. Listen to your kids talking to their friends about what they use. Talk to them to find out more and then go download the same apps. While the apps might not be designed for you, having the additional knowledge of how addictive they are, what content is displayed, who they communicate with or just knowledge about how they work will help you continue the dialogue about staying safe and spending less time on the device.
If we ask them to be respectful and behave in the right way online, we also need to be respectful that their online activities are private. I don’t need to be friends with my son on Facebook, nor do other parents need to be his friend, this is his space with his friends and a place where they can share a world that we are not part of. My parents certainly did not know everything I said, communicated or where I went. And I want my son to have that same freedom.
“If there is one single piece of advice that I can pass on to every parent, it’s communicate.”
If there is one single piece of advice that I can pass on to every parent, it’s “communicate”. Open dialogue and a continual conversation about online activity will make you the go-to person when they have questions or problems. If you only ever talk about the risks, then they are unlikely to share experiences or seek advice.
Yes, it means embracing the digital generation they have emerged into and requires us as parents to prepare and educate ourselves to have, what some parents may feel, a difficult conversation due to content or lack of expertise. Whatever you do, know that future generations are more enlightened in the connected age than any generation before them.