Part of being a parent is keeping kids safe, but it’s also about helping kids grow up to become responsible, independent adults. And there can be a bit of friction between these two ideas. How do parents find the right balance between protecting their kids and letting them behave independently?
This friction is very apparent when it comes to how parents let kids use devices and online services.
A recent article in the The Atlantic by tech researcher Alexandra Samuel broke down approaches to digital parenting into three categories based on a survey about how parents regulate their kids’ online behavior. Samuel classified the respondents in three different ways: digital enablers, who place very few restrictions on how kids use devices; digital limiters, who actively try to limit how kids use devices; and digital mentors, who try to actively participate in how kids use devices.
According to Samuel, digital mentoring tends to be the most effective way to teach kids how to use the internet in a healthy, responsible way. Samuel goes on to suggest that digital mentoring is the best way to avoid some of the problems produced by other approaches. For example, Samuel found that digital limiters’ kids were three times more likely to impersonate a classmate, peer, or adult than children brought up by digital mentors.
Some Do’s and Don’ts of Digital Mentoring
Digital mentoring is basically aligned with a lot of the digital parenting advice we provide, as it tries to give parents guidance that protects kids, respects their boundaries, and encourages them to grow into adults that know how to behave online safely and responsibly.
Talking to kids about what they do online is a pretty important part of digital mentoring. But you also need to have boundaries – not just out of respect for kids’ privacy rights, but also to understand that being a digital helicopter parent isn’t the way to help kids develop healthy online habits.So if you want to be a digital mentor to your kids, here’s a few things you can do, and a few things you should avoid.
1. Help kids learn to use technologies responsibly. Show them how to choose strong passwords and get them a password manager. When they’re old enough to start using social media, show them how to use account settings that prevent them from exposing information they want to stay private. Even though kids will eventually start adopting new technology without your supervision, they’ll know how to do it safely without relying on a quick online tutorial.
“Online tutorials provided by service providers are typically designed to get people using the service as quickly as possible – not as securely as possible. But kids will rely on this information unless they know better, so getting kids used to taking advantage of privacy settings on their own can prevent them from exposing all kinds of information online,” says F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan.
Don’t assume that kids really understand technology just because they know how to use it.
2. Lead by example. It seems like common sense that teens and toddlers need different rules. What’s less apparent is how you’ll influence whether they follow these rules or not. Adults might not think about setting rules for themselves, but many of us have already picked up bad online habits (such as using terrible passwords, or spending too much time staring at our phones). While your bad habits might seem harmless, they can set a poor example for kids.
“Kids look to parents for guidance, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to actually ask for it,” advises Sean. “If parents don’t want their kids getting addicted to the internet, they need to put down their own phones and step away from their own laptops. If parents want their kids to enjoy being outside, they need to spend time outside themselves. Don’t just tell kids to follow rules – demonstrate that the rules work by making an effort to follow them yourself.”
Don’t use gadgets as pacifiers – they’re tools, not nannies or substitutes for other things kids need.
3. Offline parental guidance should still apply to online behavior. You can make a big deal about how the internet has changed the world, but chances are a lot of advice you got from your parents still applies. Most parents teach kids not to be bullies, so just teach them that they shouldn’t use the internet to cyber bully. Teach young kids to avoid talking to strangers, both in real life and on the internet. You wouldn’t let your kids visit a dangerous place unsupervised, so don’t let them visit websites or use online services that could expose them to threats (security features like browsing protection and parental controls are tools to help you do this).
“A lot of the threats both kids and adults face online are social ones, so the internet has a lot of the same problems that people worry about offline,” says Sean. “Crime, for example is both online and offline, so teach kids to avoid it in both places.”
Don’t think that kids’ online and offline lives are completely separate. They’re growing up in a connected world, so teach them to live in one.
And remember, you need to be around to keep kids safe and teach them to behave responsibly, so make sure you’re there for them when they need you the most.