Q: What should I be aware of and start doing now to prepare my kids for future Internet use?
This month, as writers at Prairie Parent take question from our readers, I’m tackling the complex subject of technology. With my oldest being five years old, this is a subject that I think about often, but don’t have good answers for.
I spoke with Brenda Owen of Summit Counseling for some insight and expert advice on the topic of children and technology. Brenda is a Licensed Social Worker (LISW), has a Masters of Social Work (MSW) and is a Licensed Associate Counselor (LAC). From her clinics in Williston, Watford City and Tioga, Brenda regularly counsels with children who have been negatively impacted by the Internet.
Should we talk about each age group separately?
What’s interesting is that I am not finding differences between age groups on this topic. Problems with technology used to occur more with adolescents, or teenagers, but now that has changed. Some parents give their early elementary or even preschool kids phones. I’ve noticed that as soon as a child starts engaging with social networking, technology and the Internet can become an issue. A lot of problems start to come quickly at that point.
What are some of the risks children face when connected to technology?
Firstly, I see unmonitored technology use really affecting a student’s performance at school. If kids are allowed to devices in their bedrooms, they often are on those devices when they should be sleeping. Parents don’t realize how late their children are staying awake. It might not even be bad things that children are watching, just harmless videos on YouTube, but they are missing sleep. Many children are going to school sleep deprived.
What is the most worrisome issue that you encounter caused by Internet use?
Besides intentionally or unintentionally being exposed to sexually explicit material, social media and especially music can have suicidal content. Exposure to suicidal content is a huge problem. Kids will come across descriptions and ideas about self-harm and suicide and listen or watch those things over and over again. That message gets into their mind as a way to solve their problems. Self-harm techniques are taught through social media. There is talk about burning or cutting and it is promoted as a way for a child to gain acceptance, bragging rights or social status. Kids that might not otherwise have resorted to self-harm or suicide are exposed to those ideas and then mirror that behavior.
In what way can children be vulnerable to exploitation on the Internet?
Minors tend to be very open to suggestion. They can easily be talked into sexting and sending nude pictures of themselves. Children don’t often understand that if someone tells them that they are safe to send those pictures because that person will not tell anyone, as soon as their relationship goes bad that promise is over. Or, the person asking might be intending on passing those photos along immediately. There is no way for the original sender to retract and before they know it, everyone can see what they’ve sent. That child is humiliated, ostracized and I have seen them become suicidal.
Do you see a lot of clients who are victims of online bullying?
Absolutely. Social media provides a place for bullying without consequences. When people are face to face, there is emotion, but online, the human element is removed. The majority of young clients in my office with depression, suicidal ideation and self-harm are being bullied on social media. It is so hard for schools to keep up because the bullying starts online. They cannot regulate what happens beyond their walls. If someone doesn’t like another person they can post rumors, call that person awful names and victimize that person. Then others join in.
What tips do you have for parents?
Parents can do a lot of things to limit and control their child’s technology use. The first is to just limit their data and use parental controls. Always have your children’s passwords and check on your child’s usage. You want children to have autonomy yes, but you also have the right to check. The most protected child can be naive as to what can happen online. Emotions make them vulnerable and those emotions can override good decisions. Parents who check their children’s devices can be aware of these things.
You can also keep technology out of the bedroom. You can stop all technology use at 8 p.m. You can require all technology use to be done in a public space. You can check your child’s history.
Children are very smart and often more tech savvy than their parents. I tell parents to take a class on technology. Parents need to know about apps that can be secret, or incognito and hard to find on a device. They need to know what to search for and keep themselves updated.
The strictest rules and best parental controls are still not going to keep a child from being exposed to unwanted things on their own or their friend’s devices. What can a parent to do teach their children good technology practice?
Parents can teach their children resilience. They can teach their children that it is okay to walk away from things. In so doing, they can prepare their children for the risk that they might be put down.
With online bullying, parents can teach that often, walking away is the best thing to do. That will disempower a bully because they will not see vulnerability. If the bully is not acknowledged and allowed to escalate, the bully will often stop.
Also, work on your personal relationship with your child. If you find your child doing something that you do not approve of online, try not to shame them. Instead, engage them, talk it out, give suggestions. Have family time where there is no technology present. Teach your children that they do not have to be engaged with technology all of the time to have fun. Technology can become a child’s surrogate family, the place that they go for love, support and advice. Make sure that the family unit in real life is the real thing.
While Brenda’s insight and experience is halting, her tips for parents and her enthusiasm for family relationships is hopeful. Parents can know what is going on in their child’s world and can be there to lend guidance and support in the fast moving world of technology.
While allowing my child to zone out on technology for hours at a time is tempting, placing a limit on their exposure is important. But, rather than just taking away technology for fear that it will harm my child, I need to open a dialogue about what is happening in the Internet world.