Kids and Technology: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping them Safe

I sat in a packed auditorium, hanging on every word our speaker said. The presenter was an FBI agent, who also happened to be the father of one of my students, who worked in the cyber-crimes division. The stories he told made my stomach hurt. The stories he told made me want to put my small children in a bubble and move to an island without wifi. The stories he told were true. But mostly…the stories he told were 100% avoidable.

Keeping our kids safe in today’s world is a daunting task. It’s not enough to teach them to look both ways before crossing the street, or to avoid talking to strangers. We have to teach them to create safe passwords, and keep them safe. We have to teach them it’s never, EVER OK to give out your personal information online.  

Cyber-safety has to start the moment you decide to give your child access to any sort of electronic device.  And therein lies the problem. Without giving you a psych lesson on Piaget’s 4 Stages of Development, trying to teach our kids cyber-safety is hard because they think very concretely. Very black and white.  Hypotheticals are hard for them. So when we tell them to look both ways before crossing the street, they understand that. They can see the street. They can see cars coming toward them. The danger is visible. However, when we tell them to keep their private information private, they have no frame of reference. And anyone who’s ever spent 2.5 seconds with a tween or teenager knows that they are certain they are invincible. They truly believe nothing bad will ever happen to them. Until it does… then it’s too late.  

Aside from keeping our kids away from electronics altogether, which really isn’t even a viable option if you plan for them to live and succeed in tomorrow’s society, there are some things we can do to keep our kids safe. There are hundreds…thousands even…of websites that offer you sage advice on keeping kids safe online, including this one. The only problem is that often the resources are geared toward kids, not parents. It’s not enough to TELL our kids what to do. We have to guide them, monitor them, and lead by example. Now, this is when I’m going to get on my soap-box a little bit. Here are five tips for keeping our kids safe online:  

  1. Establish and keep family guidelines for electronic device usage: Start this the moment you give your toddler access to any kind of device.  Some good rules to follow: Electronics may only be used in common areas.  Phones are not allowed in bedrooms during sleep time.  Electronics may only be charged in common areas.  By setting these standards early, they will become the norm in your home, and as kids grow, their resistance will (hopefully) be less.  

Confession:  I used YouTube Kids as a babysitter when I needed a few minutes of peace.  I didn’t think anything about it.  It was, after all, called YouTube KIDS.  Until one day I overheard a conversation that my sweet 5 year olds had no business having.  I immediately asked where they had heard such conversation.  They showed me a YouTube Kids video they were reenacting.  YouTube Kids was deleted from the iPad and is no longer allowed in our home.  

  1.  Require your child to share their passwords. Yes,  I said require. As in, you are the parent, and they are the child, therefore, privacy is not something to which they are entitled where their cyber safety is concerned.  Require them to share all passwords.

True Story: A good friend discovered inappropriate text messages on her 11 year old’s phone. He’s a good kid. A really good kid. When she asked him about it, he didn’t know why it was inappropriate. By having his passwords, she was able to see what was sent, and have a conversation with him.  

  1. Now that you have their password, check their phones regularly. I know what you’re going to say, “But I don’t want my son/daughter to think I don’t trust her/him.” Let me be clear. This isn’t about trust.  This has nothing to do with trust. This is about your job as a parent to keep your kid safe. They won’t understand this, but they good news is, they don’t have to. Because you are the parent.  

True Story: A friend recently discovered her child had turned on his location services for his photos. Therefore, every photo he posted on Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter showed his exact location. Because she checked his phone regularly, she was able to talk to him about the importance of keeping his location services turned off for his photos.  

  1. Keep up to date on apps, extensions, and sites kids use: Did you know there are apps designed to look innocuous and unassuming, but really their sole purpose is to hide things from parents? For instance, the app Calculator% looks like it’s a calculator, but teens in Colorado used it to hide a huge sexting ring from parents and teachers. Admittedly, this one is hard. Kids change online platforms more often than they change their underwear. A quick Google search for “apps parents should know about” is easy enough, and will give you key apps.  
  2. Share the cloud: The easiest way to keep track of what your kids are doing on their devices is to use your iTunes or iCloud account for their phones. This will allow you to see everything they download. You might also consider an app like Life 360, or other family tracking app, to keep track of your family member’s whereabouts. 

There is nothing easy about being a parent. The world is big, and sometimes scary, and filled with crazy people. The world wide web makes it difficult to keep our kids safe, even in our own homes but, keeping our kids safe is our most important job. Teaching our kids to be responsible consumers of technology and good digital citizens is hard, and it takes time and commitment and work. But, it’s not impossible. It’s hard doing things that we know aren’t going to make us popular with our kids. Parenting isn’t about doing what’s easy, it’s about doing what’s right. 

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