Remember snail mail? When my future wife and I met by chance as 16-year-olds back in the ancient 1990s, we lived on opposite sides of the country. In those days long-distance calls were expensive, and Sunday night had the cheapest rates. So, every Sunday night we could each be found sprawled on our respective floors talking to each other, stretching the cord as far from our parents as it would reach. And we wrote letters. Lots of letters that took forever to arrive. Those were simpler times.
Children today are growing up in a completely different, yet exciting world. What I wouldn’t have given for video chatting, e-mail and texting ‘back in the day.’ I’m jealous of my kids and the communication technologies they carry around in their pockets. And, as we all know, not everything associated with the Internet is butterflies and roses. With the good we also get the bad. With sweet we get sour. With opportunity comes risk. Because of this, our children need our help to benefit from all the good, and to avoid all the bad, that comes with the Internet.
When it comes to media and parenting, we often forget to focus on all the good things the Internet provides. Here are just a few:
- Video chatting: My kids can see their grandparents every day if they want, even though we live 1,500 miles away.
- Instant communication and news: When something happens, we hear about it instantly. Gone are the days of relying on Pony Express, or even pagers.
- Learning tools: No generation of kids has ever had more access to educational tools and programming than today’s kids.
- Access to information: Selling Encyclopedias is a job of the past. If we want to learn about something, we punch a few keys and – poof! — it appears out of nowhere.
Of course, there are risks when anybody can post anything. As parents we should be concerned about several things. To name a few:
- Cyberbullying: It’s easy to bully, or be bullied, in an environment that invites children and adults to hide behind online profiles.
- Sex and violence: Certain content is no longer found only at the corner drug store, and kids can access R-rated (and worse) content in the privacy of their own bedroom.
- Privacy: Anybody can learn anything about anybody, especially about unsuspecting kids who are blessed with trust and confidence in other people.
- Misinformation: Not everything on the Internet is true, but kids don’t know that, or sometimes forget.
The Media Parenting Solution
Thankfully, there are steps we can take to help our children make the most of the good and overcome the bad found online. Research shows that the best way to reduce exposure to unwanted Internet content is to set strict rules about kids’ use of the Internet. And, additionally, talking with kids about Internet content can help them learn. Here are some specific things that parents can do to help kids make the most of the Internet:
- Use the Internet to bond with your child: One of our favorite things to do as a family is watch videos of funny animals or silly clips of people recovering from dental anesthesia. Call us crazy, but all of us enjoy the time we get together watching videos that make us all laugh.
- Set age-appropriate rules for Internet use: Kids, especially young children, need guidance on what is okay to view and what is not. And time limits for younger children are important, as well. In our family, our kids get to play on the tablet for 20 minutes and watch kid-friendly videos for about 30 minutes each day.
- Explain why you have rules: Older kids may want to understand why they can and can’t visit certain websites. Rules without reasons are begging to be broken, but when a child understands the reasons for your rules, they may be more likely to follow. Because we explained our rules and discussed what was acceptable when our children were young, we have confidence in our teenagers’ ability to start self-monitoring their own Internet use.
- Choose content together: Rather than let young children browse by themselves, sit down together and find games, apps, websites, and videos that they enjoy and with which you are comfortable. That way, they’ll have content they know is parent-approved that they can access when you can’t be looking over their shoulder.
Parents today are the first generation in the world’s history that have had to develop Internet-parenting skills. In many ways, we’re starting from scratch because we grew up without all this technology. It seems, though, that parenting is parenting, no matter the situation. Kids need guidance. They need to bond with us. And they need to have our confidence and trust. The Internet comes with the good and the bad, to be sure, but I’ll take both if it means we can develop these important, meaningful parent-child relationships.