With Mother’s Day Just Around the Corner, this is a perfect topic for parents to discuss and initiate in their own homes.
If you feel like the world your kids are growing up in is totally different from the one you knew as a kid…you’re right. From flatscreen televisions to smartphones to tablets to social media and more, technology has integrated itself into almost every aspect of our lives. (These days, even some kitchen appliances are connected to the Internet!) And while the ever-growing digital landscape offers vast opportunities for learning, growth, and entertainment, from a parent’s perspective it’s also worryingly similar to a fairytale forest: If your kids unwittingly stray off the path, they might encounter the big bad wolf.
Take a deep breath and relax. If you’re worried about digital pitfalls including inappropriate content, cyberbullying, screen time overload, and even the monetary cost of staying connected, there’s a middle ground between pulling the plug and hoping for the best. And the popular For Dummies® series is here to tell you all you need to know.
“As parents, even if we don’t understand every nuance of the digital world that we live in, it’s important to set rules and parameters to help our kids navigate it,” says Amy Lupold Bair, author of Raising Digital Families For Dummies® .“In this way, handling technology is no different from many other things we do to keep our children safe.”
Specifically, Lupold Bair says, as the head of a digital family, it’s your responsibility to create and implement a Digital Family Policy; in other words, a (more or less) comprehensive document that covers how, when, where, and why your family uses technology (including consequences that will be enacted if rules are broken). Your Digital Family Policy should change with technological innovation as well as with the growth and maturation of your children.
“Making things up as you go is a bad idea when it comes to how your family lives with and uses technology,” Lupold Bair warns. “It’s also unwise to assume that your children know what you expect from them as they navigate the digital world. A Digital Family Policy solves both problems. First, it forces you to think about the rules you want to set and to put them on paper. And secondly, once your document is complete, it’s a simple matter to review it with your children, to answer their questions, and to make sure your expectations are perfectly clear.
“You wouldn’t hesitate to create a family fire safety plan, a list of numbers to call in case of emergency, or a calendar of weekly activities,” Lupold Bair adds. “In our connected and wired world, a Digital Family Policy is every bit as important in order to maximize the benefits of technology while mitigating its dangers.”
Here, Lupold Bair shares ten areas to focus on as you create your Digital Family Policy:
Create guidelines based on age. It’s something every parent has heard, especially if there are multiple children in the house: “It’s not fair that he gets to do that just because he’s older!” No matter how many protests you hear, though, keep in mind that when it comes to technology, fair and appropriate aren’t always related. It makes the most sense for you to create different device rules according to age category rather than to create one rule that applies to your entire family.
Set screen time guidelines. Not doing so is like letting your child loose in a candy store with no spending limits: She’ll have a great time, but the results might not be good for her in the long term. Lupold Bair recommends taking into account the amount of screen time allowed on a daily and/or weekly basis, the types of devices allowed (for example, television during the week, but game consoles only on the weekend), what your child can and can’t do at friends’ homes, and whether or not rules will be relaxed during special times such as school vacations.
Establish mobile phone usage rules. Today, many children receive their first cell phones in middle, or even elementary school. Don’t leave anything up to chance—establish who your kids are allowed to call and when, and what constitutes an emergency. For instance, your child may think that a forgotten homework assignment is urgent, but you may believe that a request to drop it off at school is an abuse of phone privileges.
“As phones become smarter, you also need to think about apps, texting, data usage, phone cameras, GPS and location services, and more,” Lupold Bair points out. “Which features are you comfortable with your kids using? Be sure to check whether or not your child’s phone’s software comes with parental controls or allows you to disable certain functions.”
Create rules for Internet usage. If you have mixed feelings about the Internet as a parent, you’re not alone. On one hand, it’s full of wonderful opportunities for education and entertainment. But on the other hand, you might be worried about everything from child predators to explicit videos on YouTube…not to mention what happens if your kids figure out how to order things from your Amazon account.
Internet rules should cover email, credit card requests, search engine use, approved and banned sites, and rules for social media and chat. Especially if you have younger children who may not understand the guidelines and restrictions you want them to follow, it’s worth your time (and perhaps money) to learn about setting filters and parental controls. And remember, your child won’t be a social pariah for the rest of his life if you don’t allow him to set up a Facebook account when all of his friends do, for instance. When it comes to the Internet, your job as a parent is to keep your kids safe first and happy second.
Decide on the best location for your family computer. If you have a desktop model, this decision may not be very difficult. However, with the rise of laptops and tablets, you’ll want to make sure that your children know where they can and can’t enjoy screen time. According to Lupold Bair, it’s a good idea for computer use to happen in a highly trafficked area, such as the kitchen, family room, or homework area of the house.
Set rules for device storage, recharging, and replacement. Much like deciding where to place the family’s computer, setting the location of device storage and recharging stations should be done with safety in mind. Consider choosing a central location where all your family’s devices can be stored and charged when not in use. You can easily find products that can charge multiple devices at one time, cutting down on cord clutter and outlet overload. Also, consider a policy against storing and charging mobile devices in bedrooms, especially kids’ rooms.
Create safe passwords. Passwords are such little things, but they can create huge problems if they’re forgotten or find their way into the wrong hands. For that reason, Lupold Bair recommends establishing a safe storage location for all of your family’s passwords; perhaps a filing cabinet drawer in your home that can be locked.
Set gaming rules. Chances are, you’ve already addressed how much gaming will be allowed when you set up your screen time rules. When it comes to console games or handheld gaming devices, there are two more issues Lupold Bair says you should address. First, set rules regarding games’ ratings—these include age recommendations as well as warnings about violence and sexual content—in your Digital Family Policy.
Create protocols for reporting incidents to parents. According to Lupold Bair, open communication within the digital family is the best tool for keeping everyone safe online and making the most of this amazing digital world in which we live. Rules such as device usage guidelines and content restrictions may seem like the most important pieces of the Digital Family Policy, but the discussion that you have with your family regarding reporting of concerning or upsetting interactions may be the most important step in the creation of this document.
“Naturally, kids want to hide potentially upsetting or embarrassing information, but as the head of a digital family, you can ensure that your kids feel safe and comfortable talking to you about their concerns,” Lupold Bair points out. “Whether someone says something off-color to your child in a chat room or your child accidentally clicks an inappropriate link, chances are that he will be exposed to unwelcome content at some point. Establish family guidelines for what steps to take when this happens before allowing your children to use the Internet without direct adult supervision. For example, you might instruct your child to not close the screen and to get an adult immediately.”
Establish consequences. No family policy is easy to enforce without consequences that accompany each guideline and rule. As a family, decide what consequences are most appropriate for each section of your policy. Then, as the head of your digital family, be prepared to enforce them. This may mean time away from devices, cutting back on allowances until broken devices are replaced, or reducing privileges.
“Whatever consequences you choose, be sure to communicate them at the same time that the policy is created,” Lupold Bair advises. “I strongly recommend creating a no-tolerance policy on dangerous behaviors, such as cyberbullying, sexting, and texting while driving. Also, ask your children to sign your Digital Family Policy or create device-specific contracts, such as a contract for mobile phone use.”
“Ultimately, the benefits of today’s online tools and useful gadgets really do outweigh the safety concerns associated with their use,” Lupold Bair concludes. “As the head of a digital family, just make sure you do your homework in understanding the technology in your house so that you can set appropriate guidelines that work for your family.”
Amy Lupold Bair is the author of Raising Digital Families For Dummies®. She is the founder of Resourceful Mommy Media, inventor of the Twitter Party, and developer of the Global Influence Network for social media-savvy bloggers like herself. Amy shares the wisdom of a mom and the feedback of a thoughtful consumer on her blog, ResourcefulMommy.com.