You’re worried, and it’s a legitimate concern: what exactly are your children up to online? Moreover, how do your children’s online activities affect their mental, social, and psychological, development? I’m worried too, and that’s why I’ve developed this short guide to help you parent more effectively, and help your child safely navigate the digital realm. This guide helps you spot any potential dangers, tell-tale symptoms that there may be a problem, and easy tips to help you monitor your children’s digital activities.
Signs and symptoms
How can I tell if my child is misbehaving online? You must take steps of awareness, be pro-active, and assume someone else is having a negative influence. You can do this by applying network controls over your home and mobile plans, security apps, and regular checking of phone content and messages.
Parenting and childhood
- Weight gain or physical underdevelopment.
- Sleep disturbances.
- Difficulties in the classroom.
- Difficulties in maintaining or growing friendships and relationships.
- A sudden interest in unsuitable topics, or obsession with negative concepts.
Balance, not banning
A quick glimpse at those symptoms is often enough to make any parent want to throw all devices right out of the window. No matter how tempting that may seem, it’s not a workable solution, especially if we consider that children are now often required to use their devices in educational settings. Rather, don’t go for the ban: go for the balance. This is especially important when the time comes for you to introduce a device into your child’s life. I know, it’s a somewhat terrifying idea, but every child now has their very own first introduction to technology: coming soon to a baby milestone book near you. Aiming for balance, and not the ban, enables your child to integrate their mobile device or tablet into their lives, rather than the device becoming a focal point in their lives. If you’re concerned about your child’s time spent on their devices, or have uncovered unsuitable behaviour, here’s how you can help and guide your child back to the balance:
- Be the example, not just the rule-maker: Parental usage of technology primes children for how they should behave in, and interact, with the online world.
- Start the discussion, not the disagreement: Making the rules together makes it easier for children to self-regulate their online lives. Every child needs clear and firm boundaries, and that remains true for their digital lives too.
- An open-phone policy: If you didn’t start your child’s online journey with an ‘open phone’ policy, consider introducing one if it’s suitable for your family and circumstances. Using monitoring services and applications may be of help to you here too.
- Keep the conversation going: Make the conversation around digital safety and digital etiquette part of your family’s everyday talk. Use your own experiences to talk about examples of good and bad behaviour online, and find examples that can serve as educational moments.
The 5 symptoms you should watch out for
Earlier on, I wrote about the detrimental effects too much technology usage can have on your children’s developing minds and faculties. Bearing in mind that the way we raise our children has changed in extraordinary ways over the decades, these signs and symptoms should serve as a warning bell for parents:
- Weight gain or physical underdevelopment: The way children play and interact with each other has completely shifted. Previously, meetups at the park and running around on the playground formed the platform for their social lives. Nowadays, it’s logging on to Fortnite and chatting online. The result? Our children don’t get as much exercise as we did growing up, and childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing. Similarly, occupational therapists and physicians have noted a significant uptick in physical development issues or concerns, especially amongst young children.
- Sleep disturbances: The blue light emitted from smartphones and devices can cause eye strain, but moreover, sleep disturbances. A lack of solid sleep can have significantly destructive effects on your child’s psychological, mental, and physical development. Ensuring your children get the right amount of sleep for their age is imperative, not only for your sanity, but more importantly, for their development.
- Difficulties in the classroom: Because our fantastic devices keep our brains constantly stimulated, children may battle to concentrate and focus in the classroom.
- Difficulties in maintaining or growing friendships and familial relationships: Social media has changed the way childhood friendships are formed and maintained. What used to happen in the backyard, is now on permanent display online, and this can have a negative effect on your child’s personal self esteem, social development, and relationship skills.
- A sudden interest in unsuitable topics, or obsession with negative concepts: Is the most easily-noticed sign that your child needs to log off for a little while. Children can easily access a wide range of material and content using their devices, and not all of it is suitable for young eyes and minds. This can trigger an unhealthy obsession with unsuitable topics, or negative concepts, so keep a close eye on what your children talk about on a daily basis.
Getting the balance right
Naturally, children learn best from how they see the world, and they see the world first through you. Showcasing good digital etiquette, and a healthy relationship with technology starts with you as a parent. Are you scrolling Instagram at the dinner table, while simultaneously banning your teen from doing the same during a family meal? Setting a good example is a fundamental way of teaching good digital skills. Ask your child questions about their experiences, or enquire about their progress in their new favourite game.
An open phone policy
Of course, being able to monitor your children’s online activities is important, but this is an area of concern for many parents. Some parents believe in it, wholeheartedly, and confidently install monitoring applications or employ similar methods to keep a watchful eye on their children’s activities. Other parents feel it’s invasive to monitor their children’s activities, and that it symbolises a lack of trust between the child-parent relationship. But, there’s one policy most parents from both sides of the playing field often agree upon: the open phone policy. An open phone policy is quite simple – if mom or dad happen to pick up their child’s phone, they’re easily able to access content, messages, images, video, and audio on the devices. It’s an easy way to keep an eye on what’s happening in your child’s online life.
Making the rules together
Setting firm boundaries for children to use as buoys throughout their online journeys is key, but making those rules together is what really helps to make them stick. You and your children work together to find the guidelines that suit your child and your lifestyle best, and ensure they are adhered to.
What happens when it goes wrong
Your family is a unique circle of people, and in the same way, your child is a unique individual. Their journey, and your family’s journey, through the online world is tailored according to their own experiences, and the consequences around misbehaving with technology should be too. Discuss those consequences and outcomes with your children upfront, and don’t just wait for something to go wrong.
Some ideas for your family’s digital journey
Selecting your family’s best route through the dilemmas attached to our technology-driven life starts with you. What works for your family, may not work for another one, but I’ve included a few ideas on how you can institute and support good digital health at home. These include:
- A no phone area or time: This might be at the dinner table, while you’re enjoying a movie together, or at a specific time of day, where everyone leaves their mobile phones aside.
- No phones at bedtime: As discussed, night-time usage of mobile phones and tablets can cause sleep disturbances, so this rule should apply for all of us. Yes, even you reading this on your phone late at night, in the dark, while curled under the covers. Shut it down and read this tomorrow.
- Age appropriate technology usage: Letting your child have unfettered access to their mobile devices and tablets at a young age may not be the greatest idea. In the same way that we regulate the amount of time they spend in front of the television, so too should we regulate the amount of time they spend playing online or involved in their mobile phones.
- Get active, together: It’s not just children whose lifestyles have been significantly warped by technology – it’s us too! Getting out of the house for a half-hour walk with the dogs and the kids each day will do you good, and create great opportunities for your family to spend quality time together.