Keeping kids safe and informed online
When I was 12 years old, my parents sat me down to discuss my online activity. It was 2005, and my internet habits revolved around a now-defunct online messaging service. In desperation to fit in, I had been making unkind remarks about other students at school, and unbeknownst to me, my parents had been monitoring my messages. Mortified and guilty, I didn’t appreciate my parents’ intervention at the time. But as the years have gone by and the internet has become more complex, I feel very grateful to have been raised with healthy digital boundaries.
The digital world is ever-growing and changing, and it can be overwhelming for parents to keep up with what’s out there, let alone monitor for threats.
But it’s important to stress that there are benefits to kids and teenagers being online, including the ability to conduct research and join meetings in real time, build and maintain connections, and gain exposure to ideas they may not have otherwise.
Setting the right limits will allow kids to reap these benefits while being able to think critically about risks and keep themselves safe.
Did you know?
According to reporting by Canadian parents, 36 percent of 10- to 13-year-olds use digital devices for reasons unrelated to schoolwork for three hours or more per day.
MediaSmarts, a Canadian organization focused on digital literacy, emphasizes two key factors of healthy digital engagement.
Digital well-being: effectively using digital technology and integrating it into family life in a meaningful way (and acknowledging that this can look different for every family).
Meaningful engagement: finding a healthy balance of digital technology use in family life, including the ability to mitigate risks while embracing opportunities.
With these goals in mind, parents need to be proactive about mitigating risks on behalf of their kids. Concerns often cluster around what MediaSmarts terms the “Three Cs”: content, contact, and conduct.
These concerns include kids being exposed to or creating age-inappropriate, manipulative, or violent content; interacting with predators or ill-meaning contacts; and engaging in or being a victim of harmful online practices such as cyberbullying.
There are practical steps you can take to keep yourself and your kids safe. Being a role model for the type of digital behaviour you want to see is a good first step.
Start off by communicating about risks and responsible online behaviour proactively and in a reassuring, informed, compassionate, and nonjudgmental way.
Educate yourself about technology
It’s also worth getting to know the technology that your kids are using. Try out apps and play games before signing off on kids downloading it themselves, and take frequent looks at their screens.
For closer monitoring, consider filtering your kids’ internet use by setting up iOS or Android profiles on the devices that they use. This will allow you to screen and control which sites they visit and what type of ads they’re exposed to.
There are also software programs that can monitor kids’ digital accounts, which provide parents with detailed reports on how much time kids spent on certain sites and send alerts on inappropriate activity.
Promote digital literacy
Of course, no tool is going to guarantee that your child never comes across something they shouldn’t. Therefore, it’s important to equip your kids with robust digital literacy and critical thinking skills.
Set screen time limits
Setting fair and realistic limits on screen time ensures your kids benefit from the online world while remaining firmly grounded in the physical one. (Remember, not all screen time is created equal; some activities are more productive than others.)
Encourage critical thinking
Encourage kids to think critically about online content. Model the importance of thoughtfully analyzing and evaluating content, and discuss the dangers of “filter bubbles.”
Teach identity theft protection
Prevent identity theft by teaching your kids to set strong passwords, tighten privacy settings, and rigorously protect personal information.
Digital well-being looks different for everyone. Factors such as social and cultural understandings of family, children’s ages, personalities, social environments, access to technology, level of supervision, and access to role models all influence what an “ideal” digital engagement looks like.
Be kind to yourself and your kids as you navigate this complex world together, and remember that there’s no need to compare your practices to others.
When talking to your kids about sensitive subjects such as digital well-being, try to make interactions as constructive as possible.
If you find something you think is alarming, Dr. Dave Anderson, vice president of school and community programs at the Child Mind Institute, recommends that you “slow down, step back, and try to understand the context” before you react.
When you do start to discuss, focus on compromise and co-operation, rather than punishments and confrontation.