It took several unsafe situations to teach our kids about internet safety. And here is the truth- you cannot, no matter how hard you try- protect your kids from every bad thing that is out there on the internet. It’s like trying to plug up a dam with your big toe. The flood of stuff is just too vast. So, how do we inform our kids and encourage them to come to us when they come across things?
We’ve tried to protect our kids as best we could. We installed monitoring apps on their devices so we could read their texts, shut iPads and phones down during certain hours, and prohibited unsafe internet sites from popping up in searches. We’ve tried it all. And stuff still happened. We realized the monitoring app didn’t monitor texts that had been erased. When it was erased from the device, it was erased from the app also. We discovered we needed to do more than just try to prevent things from happening, we needed to equip our kids with tools to deal with it once it did.
An Open Door Policy
We don’t allow our kids to ever take any sort of device into their rooms with the door shut. Ever. If they are on a device- phone, tablet, laptop, gaming system- whatever, the door is open and we are walking in and checking- often. That same open door policy is in reverse. If they come across a situation where they feel uncomfortable, pressured, confused, or hurt by anything that comes across their device, the door is open for them to come to us and talk about it. They won’t get in trouble- they’ll be applauded for telling us what’s going on. For some good tips on how to talk to your kids so they feel comfortable coming to you, I recommend this Ted Talk on Internet Safety .
I’d love to tell you I started off with this approach with our kids, but I’d be lying. It started with all kinds of threats that if they disobeyed any of the ground rules on their devices they would have them taken away until their thirty-sixth birthday. It wasn’t until we came across a couple of really scary situations, that I began to rethink how I talked to my kids about online safety.
My kids have to ask before they can download any apps on any device. I have to log in and approve it before its done. I never once thought a coloring app ages 4+ would be something I needed to monitor. Wrong. Apparently this app allows you to upload your own photos to color and share them on the app. And someone uploaded coloring pages that wouldn’t even be allowed in a PG-13 movie. Not cool.
Another instance occurred in which one of my children downloaded an app for ages 9+. I wouldn’t preview a TV show for nine year olds before allowing my kids to watch it. But I will clearly think again when it comes to any available apps. This was a fairy tale game with horses, princesses and castles- and predators. Pretty early on, I realized this game had a chat feature and someone was targeting my daughter. About two weeks after she had downloaded the app, I discovered their private conversation. It went something like this:
You bring such beauty into my life, I think I’ll call you, Rose.
Don’t call me Rose, that’s not my name.
Well, my name is Kyle. What should I call you, then?
And right then and there my heart sank as I saw her name typed and sent to heaven knows who across the internet. Through other very cleverly poised comments, they had tricked her into telling them her age and what state she lived in. She knew not to talk to strangers. We had discussed what she absolutely, under no circumstances whatsoever, could share online. But this guy was slick.
Photos and Fickle Friends
I now have teens at home and we have just opened the door to the world of social media. I wouldn’t recommend allowing your kids a social media account before age fourteen. Some reading this may think that’s crazy, but even Bill Gates didn’t let his kids have a phone until age fourteen. Middle school has enough drama without adding that into the mix. Kids don’t realize that a “private” account can quickly and easily become public. Walk them through ghost accounts, hacked accounts, and how a friend of a friend is not a trusted friend- so anything you put on your Instagram account you had better feel comfortable with it being on a billboard on the side of the road. Because what you share privately with your BFF today, could be the very thing she uses to get back at your tomorrow once she decides she hates you. It’s high school drama at a whole new level.
The Number One Thing
The most important thing you can do is have a consistent, open dialogue with your kids. If you sense an unhealthy attachment to their device, set some usage boundaries. Up the random cell phone checks. It’s your phone- not theirs- so grab it and start looking- at everything. Even the silly games open to seven year olds. Because you just never know. Don’t assume because you have a good kid they are not ever going to be exposed to bad things on the internet. Make sure they know they can talk about it without you shaming them or totally freaking out. Navigating internet safety is a dual effort- you and your children have to work together.
Don’t think you can wait to have the internet safety talk until your kids have their own devices or social media accounts. If you let your preschooler play on your phone in the backseat, you had better start having some conversations now. If you are a mom, grandmother, aunt, teacher, or coach, share this information with your friends and family members. It takes an army of caring adults to battle this onslaught against our children.
What are some of your rules/boundaries you have set for your kids with their devices?
What are some monitoring/safety apps you have found to be helpful with your kids?
Erica Wiggenhorn is the author of An Unexplainable Life and The Unexplainable Church bible studies, both released by Moody Publishers. Erica writes and speaks to Bible study and parenting groups nationally. To connect with Erica, visit her website at www.ericawiggenhorn.com