Helping Children Navigate Technology & the Online World

 Photo by  Kelly Sikkema  on  Unsplash

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Last week I gave a talk to a group of parents (and a few grandparents!) about what it looks like to help our children and young people navigate the online world and technology in our society.

The evening centred around the idea that the Internet has similar attributes to that of fire, on one hand enabling much human progression & creativity, aiding society as a whole, but also holding the power and ability to cause great harm and destruction, potentially exposing ourselves and those around us to dangerous situations. In this parallel, the internet brings almost unlimited levels of progress and potential, but also brings a dangerous element if left unchallenged.

After introducing both the physical and mental health implications of this new wave of technology, the night was structured around 3 main elements: considering the importance of boundaries, habits and communication.

Boundaries

Imagine a room in your house only your children or young people have a key to. They can enter it whenever they want, spending as much time as they like in there, doing whatever they want and inviting in anyone they choose to spend time with there, completely unsupervised by you or anyone else. The existence of such a room for our children with these characteristics sounds ludicrous, and yet, when we hand our young people an Internet enabled device with no boundaries put in place for its use or filtering options for its content, this is what we offer. 

When we have a fire in our living rooms we often also have a safety guard, realising we need to put a barrier in place to protect children who may not be yet aware of the dangers fire can pose. When considering the internet, it’s right that we put similar boundaries in place to protect our young people from things we know have the potential for harm, especially when they are not yet old enough to comprehend the reasons why protecting them is important. Whether these boundaries be filtering or monitoring software, limits on when the internet is used in our house, or an open device policy (where it is agreed nothing is hidden from you or your supervision - no passwords you do not know). These boundaries may be unwelcome, particularly to older children, but our job as parents and guardians is to protect them from harm, and a firm boundary does this.

Often, in our dealings with the internet and children, we set boundaries in place and consider the job done. Boundaries may protect children in our own homes, and under our supervision, but what about their relationship with the internet when they are elsewhere, or indeed when they grow up and leave our homes? Considering and placing boundaries is important, but they aren’t enough.

Habits

We need to encourage children to the adoption of healthy habits around the internet. Boundaries protect them from inappropriate material and other dangers online, but what they fail to do is prepare them for a life lived online beyond the protection and safety of our homes. 

The bad news for us as parents and those who care for children is that a lot of this habit formation falls back on us. My nephew is obsessed with the washing machine, he sees his mum with the basket of dirty clothes, and he wants to help, because the reality is that children seek to do what you do. Children spend most of their time with you, watching you, emulating you, so if internet and screen time runs unfettered through your life, unlimited and unboundaried, then these are the habits and patterns you are laying down as normal in their lives.

Are we teaching our children both with words and our actions when and where it’s good to have the internet, and when to take a break? Are we modelling healthy habits ourselves, and encouraging the adoption of habits? 

Communication

Even before our children are properly capable of speech, we warn them and make them ware of the dangers of fire, “Hot! Hot!” we’ll say to them when they wander too close.

Boundaries and habit development are good, but without communication, their efficacy is limited. Our living rooms are not the only place they will encounter fire, and out in the great wide world, our young people are going to encounter an internet that is not as boundaried as they may be used to, finding themselves with the ability to set and develop their own limits and habits.

We must ask ourselves whether they are prepared for the decisions they are going to be tasked with making around their own use of devices and the internet. Are they prepared and educated not just on what the boundaries and habits are, but on why they are important?

We need to protect our children through boundaries and healthy habit developement, without a doubt, but we also need to prepare them for life outside our umbrella of parental oversight. Nothing is going to do that like building and maintaining healthy communication channels with our children and young people on issues like these. 

Simple ways of doing this are involving your children in conversations around boundaries and habits, explaining why they are important, and as they grow, explaining more about the reasons behind them as you prepare them for greater levels of trust and freedom, first within, and then outside of your guidance. Take a look at the below website which has an editable “menu” for you and your family to put together your own media plan, perhaps consider doing this as a family together, turning boundaries and habits into a conversation.

https://www.healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx#home

 

Boundaries, habits & communication.

When these three strands work together, we see both the protection of our children, and the preparation of them to navigate the digital age. They don’t know anything other than today’s connected world, so let’s prepare them for life with the online world, teaching them the benefits, when it’s good and right for them to pick these devices up, but also instilling values and expectations that there are times when it’s good for them to put them down, to better find themselves in a world that doesn’t require constant recharging.

 

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If you would like to bring WhyMind into your group to deliver this presentation in full to parents or adults, including an expanded session including of tips and suggestions for action, please get in contact here. A version aimed directly at teenagers & adolescents is also available.

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Want to know more? Take a look at these articles: 

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/parents-need-to-monitor-their-children-s-internet-use-says-ispcc-1.3369721

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/