The online world is a big part of kids’ social lives. A recent study reported that 97 percent of teens aged 13 to 17 said they use at least one social media platform.
That same study reported that 81 percent of teens in this age group said social media makes them feel more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives, and around two-thirds say these platforms make them feel as if they have people who will support them through tough times.
Parents want their children to enjoy the benefits of social connectivity while avoiding the risks. Entrepreneurial technology companies are moving to address that concern with such products as Bark, which says it monitors text messages, email and 24 social networks for parents and alerts them if its algorithms detect potential risks. Other apps let parents monitor or even control their kids’ online activities. Is this a good idea?
Sure, up to a point.
Monitoring and control are great tools, but the limits and intimidation they apply may not change the way your children behave when the controls eventually go away. Helping them with that behavior — actual parenting, if you will — cannot be outsourced to an app, and its algorithms and reports are no substitute for ongoing discussions that clarify your family values, such as these:
”Our family treats people well.“ This presumes your family values don’t support bullying and insults, and wait a second before you scoff. If your child hears you exclaim “what a jerk,” it’s a good bet your child may do likewise. In a family where values are expressly shared: “In our family, we make it a point not to speak badly about others,” an impromptu loss of temper can be followed with an apology and an explanation.
”Our family values privacy, but doesn’t keep secrets.” Privacy means that the child can do something by himself, but the parent knows about it. A child wanting privacy as he or she grows is developmentally normal, and a good thing. But keeping secrets from parents, especially if someone else tells them to do so, is not how your family should operate, and in fact can be dangerous to your children.
”Our family has values and beliefs about sexual health and safety.” Parents also may assume that their kids know more about sexuality and related issues than they actually do. An important national study found that parents overestimate the amount of sex information their children get in school and underestimate the value kids place on their parents' opinions about sexuality. Accurate information about all body parts, what they do, and how they work is a key protective factor in preventing sexual victimization, in either the real or virtual world.
”Your parents are always here to help you.” Your kids need to know that no matter what, if they need you, you’re there. You can let them know that you hope they’ll never be in a frightening, embarrassing or confusing situation, but if they ever are, they can and should call you immediately.
Allowing your children to experience life online with a monitoring app as backup is not sufficient to prepare them for a healthy lifetime of online experiences. Think of the app like training wheels on a bicycle. They are certainly a good idea while learning to navigate a steady path, but they can’t be relied on forever. What does last forever is active parenting that includes consistent sharing of your values and expectations for what it means to be safe, healthy, and a good citizen of their actual and virtual communities.