Helping Your Children Use Internet Devices Responsibly

Posted by Matt Frattali on 12/8/16 2:15 PM

Most adults under-parent their children when it comes to technology. There are no bad intentions involved; it’s just that when you were in middle school, you had Garbage Pail Kids cards in your pocket—and today your children will likely leave middle school with a device that contains the whole world. There’s a lot to consider in overseeing your children’s engagement with technology, and you might be wondering where to begin. Let’s start with device selection and setting limits for use.

Your Child’s Device and Setting Limits

Whether it’s your hand-me-down cell phone, a school-issued laptop, or a tablet gifted from Grandma, what should you do before you hand your child an internet-enabled device for the first time? Surely, you’ve thought long and hard about what device to give your children, and when to give it. I can’t help you there; that decision is personal and you are the world’s leading authority on your children and their needs.

But, when you do decide to take the plunge and give your child a device, you should treat it as seriously as giving your child a car and be proactive in having a conversation about its use. Discuss appropriate and inappropriate ways to use the device. Lay down conditions for using the device based on the trust level you have with your child.

Some common-sense measures:

  • Establish that the device is a privilege that is earned by responsible use or else will be taken away.
  • Create a rule that there will be no technology at the dinner table. A device-free dinner can be good for the whole family.

Additional measures to consider:

  • Have your child use the device outside of the bedroom, in a public space. This will help you monitor appropriate use.
  • Have your child turn the device in to you by or before bedtime. Technology use has been shown to negatively impact the quality of sleep.

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If your child needs more oversight:

  • Allow your child to use the device only in public spaces, with the screen pointed away from the wall, while you or another adult is home.
  • Limit your child’s use of devices to homework. 

For more ideas on how to set limits that work, see this collection of parent-tested strategies for managing technology at home.

Digital Parental Controls

The parental controls listed above are not digital, which are manageable for any parent regardless of technical knowledge. That said, you may still want digital controls.

It’s very straightforward to turn on parental controls on an iPhone. You can also use your personal iCloud account on your child’s phone, so you see all their texts and apps. It’s also simple to turn on Safesearch in the Chrome browser. In some cases you may feel the need to install spyware on your child’s device. Be advised that even if you have the time and technical skill to implement digital controls, it’s very possible your child can defeat them.

How Your Child Uses the Device

Congratulations! You’ve set some limits with your child. Now what?

At Lowell, we use the Common Sense Media framework to help our students become safe and responsible digital citizens. It concretizes the concept by breaking it down into eight discrete categories. If you don’t feel like reading all the parent resources on the website, below is the “Reader’s Digest” version.

Internet Safety

  • Children should never give out information that discloses their identity or location (phone number, school name, etc.).
  • Most real-life safety rules (like “stranger=danger”) can be applied online. All social media should be set to private viewing (not viewable by strangers).
  • Know that digital addiction is every bit as real as a gambling addiction (but think carefully about if and how you want to limit screen time).

Relationships and Communication

  • Learn social media. Make a Snapchat account and understand what your child is doing. Create an Instagram account and follow your child.
  • Require that all friends on social media must be friends in real life. Enforce this by regularly reviewing your child’s friends/followers and questioning them on names you don’t recognize.

Cyberbullying

Discuss with your child the dangers of cyberbullying. Why is it more common than physical bullying? It’s easier to do from a distance when you don’t see another person’s hurt and can be done anonymously. So what should you do if you feel bullied? Don’t engage—tell an adult.

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Privacy and Security

  • Know the passwords of all of your child’s social media accounts.
  • Reassure them that you will not use them without notification unless their well-being is threatened.
  • They should never, ever, give any password to anyone but you.

Self Image and Identity

It will be tempting for your child to experiment with identity online because it seems like a lower risk than doing so in real life, but this is not necessarily the case (see “Digital Footprint” below). Talk about how sexting is NOT an expression of identity and can be extremely dangerous.

Digital Footprint and Reputation

Talk about the “The Newspaper Rule”: never post anything online that you don’t want to see on the front page of a newspaper. This includes private posts on social media (which get cut, pasted, and published by frenemies) and even text messages with trusted family members (phones can get hacked).

Information Literacy

When you were a kid, you got answers from the library, and everything there was basically true. This website is a good way to introduce young children to the reality that not everything on the internet is true. For older children, talk about the nuances between different news outlets. Don’t be that parent who thinks that Wikipedia is anything less than one of the most important websites ever. 

Creative Credit and Copyright

Tell your child to buy their music and movies. It’s easy to steal this content, but just because you can is no reason for doing so.

And, when things go wrong (and they probably will at some point), try to see it as a teachable moment. Keep in mind that kids will likely make mistakes in the virtual world no more often than they would in the real world. 

Good luck, and let’s be careful out there.

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email admissions@lowellschool.org, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Parenting, Technology

Matt Frattali

Written by Matt Frattali

Matt Frattali is Lowell’s Middle School Academic Technologist. He received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and his master’s degree in special education from American University. Before coming to Lowell 2015, he taught for 18 years at various independent schools in the Washington, DC, metro area.