Keep your child safe and tuned in to the real world in our digital age
Technology is an inescapable part of 21st-century living, but it doesn’t need to be the center of your universe.
These days, the Internet is seen as a convenience. As soon as babies have enough dexterity to hold a device, many parents “plug” their children in, hoping to calm, stimulate, and entertain them (and, perhaps, have a moment or two of peace to heat up dinner or have an adult conversation).
Babies aren’t capable of getting into much trouble on the Internet, but kids raised in the digital age with unbridled access to electronics can end up endangering themselves because of their online activities and/or the amount of time they spend online.
Here are a few guidelines for keeping your family’s Internet use healthy and safe.
Babies and toddlers
A recent study found that more than one-third of infants under the age of one have used an electronic device. By the age of two, the majority of kids have used a smartphone or tablet. It seems almost unbelievable that only 2% of parents surveyed had delayed the introduction of such devices until their children turned four.
What do babies and toddlers do with their digital devices? They can tap, scroll, and interact with apps. Some parents hand over devices to their babies to help them sleep or keep them quiet at bedtime.
Although it can be a convenient quick fix to pacify a cranky child with a digital device, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants and toddlers should avoid screens until they are 18 months old. The organization maintains that “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”
In addition to potential problems with brain development, devices are not safe for children to mouth and teethe on. When a baby is plopped down in a crib with a tablet, it isn’t just the screen time that is a danger, the actual screen and components can be hazardous.
This age range is also a time for you to take a break from your device. How often do you keep yourself busy on your phone while your child is playing with a new toy or swinging away in the living room? Start modeling healthy behavior. Show your child that you can entertain yourself without a device and engage with the world around you.
Childhood (preschool and elementary school)
By the time children turn three, they can use apps, watch movies, and play games on devices. At this point, a smartphone or tablet can buy a parent hours of time. It might be tempting for a Solo Mom to use devices as a coparent of sorts, but it is important to set limits on your child’s Internet use.
Experts agree that engaging with the real world—the environment and the people in it—is essential for your child’s development. Literacy and math games might be fun and teach your children facts, but plugged-in children are often disengaged children.
This is also a great time to establish the expectation that your child use devices near you and in a common area. It is far easier to eventually loosen up on an expectation than implement a new one when your child might be developmentally prone to back talk.
Limit your child’s screen time to an hour or two a day. It is OK for your child to feel bored and seek out ways of entertaining himself that do not involve a digital device. Coloring, reading, building, interacting, scheming . . . these years are prime time for the development of your child’s imagination, intellect, and social skills. Unlimited, unsupervised hours on a digital device are not compatible with the development of a well-rounded child.
Preadolescence and adolescence (late elementary school and middle school)
By now, your child might have her own smartphone or tablet. At school, she likely has access to electronic devices used for educational purposes. Likewise, her social life is not limited to in-person interaction; much of it unfolds on online apps such as Snapchat and Instagram.
If you’ve set boundaries and established expectations early in your child’s life, now is not the time to ease up. If you have provided liberal, unsupervised access to electronic devices, now is the time to tighten the reins. It is surprisingly common for children in this age range to be exposed to pornography and sexting. A survey of 70,000 children found that, on average, sexting begins in fifth grade. Consumption of porn can begin as early as the age of eight. Most parents are completely unaware of their children’s online activities, and even when evidence arises that children have engaged in risky behavior, some parents prefer to live in denial.
Cyberbullying and inappropriate online relationships are another risk of unbridled Internet use during this age range. Your child needs boundaries, supervision, and protection from others, including himself. Check your child’s device regularly, and keep an open line of communication about what is appropriate—and inappropriate—online.
Face-to-face communication is a critical skill, one that excessive Internet use tends to disrupt. Set aside designated times and places your child can use a smartphone; otherwise, it is easy for the default to become continual use, even during dinnertime.
Adolescence and early adulthood (high school)
By high school, it is very difficult to restrict a child’s access to digital devices. High schoolers need such devices for school, and a smartphone can provide a sense of security for an anxious mom of a child just starting to drive or attend unsupervised parties.
Even if you haven’t laid the groundwork for safe Internet use, you can still influence your child and keep her safe. Have honest conversations with your children about the benefits and drawbacks of the Internet. Be aware of your school district’s policy on cyberbullying and local statutes regarding Internet-related mischief.
When your child starts driving, electronic devices pose other risks. Model safe driving early by not texting and driving or taking calls in your car. There is also plenty of information online about how to keep young drivers safe. Although a phone can be a source of danger, it can also be a tool that promotes safety, letting you know where your child is and even tracking his driving habits.
The Internet is an awesome invention, but it is not a substitute for face-to-face human interaction. It is easy to end up with a child who is plugged in constantly and dependent on—perhaps even addicted to—digital devices. You are in charge, and it is your responsibility to promote safety and healthy habits in your household. Addressing the issue from a place of love and concern will help keep the lines of communication open when your child needs it most.
Danielle Bostick, a former Solo Mom and ESME’s Wellness–Mental Health Resource Guide, is a Latin teacher, an advocate, and a mom to six kids in Winchester, Virginia. When not working as an educator, Bostick writes about the National Football League for various sites and sexual assault and child sexual abuse for the Huffington Post. You can find her on Twitter: @danibostick, and on Facebook: Dani Bostick.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.