If you had asked me two months ago how I felt about digital media as a parent, I would have had an answer ready: Our kids, I would have said, won’t own devices or touch social media until age 13. I probably would have launched into a tirade about how young brains can’t handle the complex rules of digital citizenship, after which you probably would have wanted to smack me with a smartphone.
Then the coronavirus happened. All of my clever plans flew out the window. Now, my 8-year-old practically lives on our family tablet — doing a bit of online learning, sure, but also games, chat, FaceTime and email. Our 5-year-old is not that far behind. And really, who can blame us? My husband and I want our kids to feel socially connected even as we isolate ourselves in our home. We also have full work schedules and no school, no child care and no extracurriculars to keep our kids busy and keep us sane. Screen time has become our life line.
Yet in all the chaos of this pandemic, I forgot why we had been so cautious about the digital universe in the first place — until bad things started happening. There were lunchtime Zoom chats involving lewd conversations about body parts. Rude emails sent and received. Screen shots taken of chats without permission. And poop emojis — so many poop emojis.
I wasn’t about to take the tablet away, but I realized I needed to set ground rules and have some important conversations. But how do you talk a young kid about online etiquette? About sexting? About, dear God, pornography?
I wasn’t sure, so I talked to some digital literacy experts. They were empathetic toward all the parents who have thrown their kids headfirst into the digital deep end over the past few weeks. “Let’s be easy on ourselves, because none of us — no one — is going to do things perfectly right now. It’s impossible, because we’re trying to juggle too much,” said Diana Graber, the founder of Cyberwise and the author of “Raising Humans in a Digital World.”
Here’s the advice I was given.
One way to do this is to set the rule that kids have to ask permission to go online or use a device, much as they would need to ask permission before walking over to a neighbor’s house. “By just pausing at that permission-getting, you’re already asking a child to be conscious about what they’re doing,” said Liz Kline, the vice president of education programs at Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit organization that provides technology recommendations for families and schools.
Maybe they’re not allowed to use tablets in their rooms with the door closed, and instead have to use them in common areas. Perhaps they can do certain activities (like online reading) in their rooms but others (like chats and video chats) must be done in shared spaces, where you can check on what they’re doing. If that sounds intrusive, consider that when your kids have real-life play dates, you’re likely to pop in every so often to check in and offer snacks; digital play dates should be no different, said Devorah Heitner, Ph.D., the founder of Raising Digital Natives and the author of “Screenwise.”
If you need screens to entertain your kids during the conference call you’re leading, that’s fine — but maybe that’s when you start a Netflix show for them and take the remote control with you. In other words, set things up so that they’re least likely to get into trouble online while you’re distracted, said Dr. Heitner.
It may help you organize and remember these rules. Here’s a sample agreement from Common Sense Media, and here’s one from Cyberwise; once signed, they could go up on the refrigerator. If kids break the rules, come up with appropriate consequences — if they chatted when they weren’t allowed to, they might lose chat privileges for a while. If they did something egregious but didn’t really know any better, respond less punitively.
Maybe you explain to your child that the app they were using wasn’t really designed for kids their age, and that it doesn’t seem to be working well for their group of friends, so you’ll find another option.
Also, plant the seed now if you plan on rescinding some digital privileges after the coronavirus crisis has passed — perhaps you agree to download a particular app but note that this is just temporary, for use while everyone is stuck at home.
This is crucial. “You really have to set expectations from the very, very beginning,” Kline said. One thing kids often don’t understand about the online world is that it isn’t private — that anything that happens online can live forever and be seen by anyone, including parents, teachers, principals and college admissions staff. (Even if your chat is private, for instance, screen shots can be shared.)
Kline has what she calls her Grandma Rule: She tells kids that her grandma has very high expectations of her and everyone else, and that, when they’re online, they shouldn’t “do anything that Grandma Ida wouldn’t have been okay with,” she said.
Also, explain to kids that chats and emails are easy to misinterpret, so they should go out of their way to be courteous so that they don’t accidentally upset their friends or family.
You might even want to get specific about what is and isn’t acceptable. A kid might think it’s funny to, say, send a good friend a photo of their private parts, but it’s important to explain that sending or even just receiving an illicit image of a child breaks federal and, often, state child pornography laws.
Teach kids, too, about the importance of keeping their information private. Have them create usernames that don’t include their full names, and make sure they understand never to give out their home address or other personal details.
I, for instance, don’t want my kids to engage with strangers online, so I’ve been selective about the apps I let them use. I signed my son up for a kids’ email that requires me to review and approve any emails that come from, or are sent to, people who aren’t on my kids’ preapproved contact list. (Email programs that work this way include Kids Email, Tocomail and Zoobuh; you can also create a Gmail account for your child and manage it.)
I also don’t feel comfortable letting my kids watch YouTube Kids. Although the site is supposedly kid-friendly, inappropriate content sometimes slips through, so I limit my kids’ use to particular channels and stay close to them while they use it. “It’s really easy to end up in a not good place on YouTube quickly,” Kline said.
Other kid-friendly chat programs include Blinx, Cocoon and Franktown Rocks. If your kids play online games, make sure you’ve both read their rules and community standards.
“Conversations about pornography can and should start really early,” said Emily Rothman, Ph.D., a community health scientist at the Boston University School of Public Health. And by “really early,” she means kindergarten.
You could explain to your kids that, just as adults drink coffee or alcohol but kids aren’t supposed to, adults sometimes like to look at pictures or videos of naked people, but that this kind of content isn’t good for kids’ brains, and seeing it could be confusing or even scary. Say, “You should tell me if you ever see that stuff, not because I’d be mad at you or you’ve done anything wrong, but just because I want to know how to make your computer safer so that that doesn’t happen again,” Dr. Rothman said
. To minimize the chance that your child will accidentally stumble across pornography (it’s easier than you think!), activate parental controls on your devices; here’s a guide to some ways to do so. There are also kid-friendly browsers that limit search results.
They’re going to engage with digital media in ways that don’t make sense to us. And as long as they’re being safe and courteous, that’s OK. “It’s really important that when we share tools with kids, we expect them to do things that are unexpected, and that we expect them to do things that are developmentally where they are,” Dr. Heitner said.
Their online interactions might seem especially bizarre right now because of the anxiety they’re feeling about the coronavirus. So we should allow them to be a little weird — to send emails containing only pig emojis or to FaceTime while doing headstands.
And if you, like me, are somewhat shocked by all of the fart conversations you’ve been overhearing, remind yourself that your kids probably had these conversations with their friends before the coronavirus, too. You just weren’t privy to them because they happened at recess — rather than 10 feet away from you while you were trying to eat a sandwich.
Melinda Wenner Moyer is a mom of two and a science journalist who writes for Slate, Mother Jones, Scientific American and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications.