Taking an active role in our kids' digital lives

Sarah Granger offers some important, clear and commonsense advice for protecting your kids online by teaching them to use the net wisely and welcome all it has to give -- not by scaring them into furtive, disastrous Internet experimentation.

When I first ventured online as a nine-year-old, it was on an Apple II+ computer through a 300 baud modem that was about 13,000 times slower than the speed of the average broadband Internet traffic in the United States today. Not many people had modems at the time, but I was able to call the local Dickinson movie theater BBS in Kansas City and see and read movie listings "online." The novelty soon wore off, and I began exploring other ways to connect online. I soon had one other friend who was ten years old who had a brand-new Apple IIe and who also had a modem. She and I called each other by modem through the phone line about once a week, connected, and typed notes back and forth, "chatting" online -- not unlike modern text messaging. I took a course at a local computer store to learn typing and BASIC programming. The following summer, I attended a computer camp with my modem friend. I learned to translate my thoughts quickly through my fingers.


Sarah Granger is author of the newly published The Digital Mystique: How the Culture of Connectivity Can Empower Your Life -- Online and Off.
Now as a parent of an eight-year-old girl, I've been researching children's brain development and how it's affected by screen time -- time spent in front of both televisions and computers. Looking back, I firmly believe part of my brain became wired to think as I typed. To this day, it's easier for me to translate my thoughts through typing than it is to express myself through speech. That's part of what it means to be a digital native. We're wired differently. But don't worry -- that doesn't mean your kids will become socially inept -- if anything, being online helped me as a natural introvert to reach out in other ways and connect with like-minded kids.

It's true that how you spend your time as a child helps develop those traits early, and the same thing is as true for sports as it is for the arts, reading, and technology. In my case, I was already spending a lot of time alone, so the computer gave me a window to be with others when I was at home, bored of playing with whatever toys I was into at the time. True digital natives think differently and view technology differently because it is ubiquitous in their lives. Yes, they can become dependent upon it, but not always in the ways you might think. As IdaRose Sylvester, an international technology business consultant and friend of mine told me, "The Internet, mobile, etc., are completely part of the fabric of my life; it's not some appendage or external force anymore." I certainly feel that way, and I have ever since I began making new friends online at age fourteen.

Tweens and teens learn technology and social skills at an extremely rapid pace. It's nearly impossible as parents to stay on top of everything they're doing with these tools, online and off. The best hope we have of keeping our digital native children safe and supported is to continue a constant dialogue with them, imparting as much wisdom as we can about human nature in the process. Tweens and teens need to learn that these tools they possess hold great potential for power, and that how they use these tools can be incredibly important both in the short and long term. As parents, our rules need to take into consideration our children's digital lives.

One of the best ideas I've seen for digital families is the creation and implementation of a clear, understandable policy for technology, Internet, and mobile use. Many families have a family Internet policy that evolves as the kids get older. They make purposeful decisions that all family devices stay in the main areas of the house at a charging station, where parents can monitor devices and their use. They create limits on time usage of devices. They make sure parental controls are turned on so some content is blocked. They set up monitoring tools so they can observe what their kids are doing when they are online. Some of these policies can become more specific, like the amount of screen time allowed during the week and the weekend, which devices may be used in friends' homes, rules for downloading apps, times of day for use, text limits, browsing limits, who to give e-mail addresses to, using parental controls on searches, and limiting image searches. It is important to build awareness about the risks of online chatrooms, invasive online advertising, and the process internet companies use to store personal data.

Beth Blecherman, aka TechMama, author of My Parent Plan, likes to say that "the online safety talk is the new sex talk." She explains, "One very important part of family communication is having regular talks with kids about online safety. I suggest starting online safety talks at the earliest time it is 'age' appropriate, but it is never too late." Beth also notes that family policies, contracts, or rules will need updating over time as children get older and as technology evolves. "I have been having regular talks with my oldest son about online safety for years. He knows that to keep his freedom online, he needs to share with us what he is doing online. He also knows that together as a family we will review the privacy settings and communication etiquette for each site."

Along with the idea of the family policy around using the web, mobile device use deserves special attention. Some concepts to make clear to your kids are: The parents bought the phone, the parents own the phone, the parents will always have access to everything on the phone. This sounds simple, but this could be overlooked for kids getting hand-me-down devices at a young age. I recommend reading "Gregory's iPhone Contract," a real contract written by two parents for their son. It includes some great specifics in this area. Here are a few of my favorite points:

"Do not ever ignore a phone call if the screen reads 'Mom' or 'Dad.'"

"Do not use this technology to lie, fool, or deceive another human being."

"Do not text, e-mail, or say anything through this device you would not say in person."

Some other smart ideas: If the kid breaks the phone/device, the kid pays to repair or replace the device. Don't text or e-mail anything to any friends that you wouldn't want their parents to see. It's all common sense for adults when we read these tips, but we have to remember, this is all new for kids. And since Gregory was an older boy, his parents made the point that he should never view porn or send or receive any images of anyone's "private parts." Unfortunately, this has become common practice for some teens and young adults. Best to make sure that never happens.

Growing up online, many kids have surpassed their parents in time and experience on the Internet, and they have opted, on their own, to dial down their involvement. Many teens are deciding to leave some of the more active social networks like Facebook, instead opting for more simplified apps like Instagram, sending text messages to close friends, or -- gasp -- actually using the phone for voice-based conversations. As digital natives, they're not as easily impressed by the latest and greatest widget as we often are, so they can be more objective. If we can do our best as parents -- teaching our kids to independently evaluate sites, apps, users, and abusers online -- we'll raise the next generation of digital natives to be much savvier about the ways of the world -- online and off -- than we are.


Excerpted from The Digital Mystique: How the Culture of Connectivity Can Empower Your Life -- Online and Off by Sarah Granger, published by Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2014.

(Image: A Sign, Ben Garney, CC-BY; Group 2 Week 2, Group 2 Week 2, CC-BY)

Published 4:00 am Tue, Aug 26, 2014

About the Author

Sarah Granger is the author of The Digital Mystique: How the Culture of Connectivity Can Empower Your Life -- Online and Off.

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