We've talked in previous weeks about the concept of Protect & Prepare: a process of keeping our kids safe from the dangers of the world around them while preparing them to navigate those dangers on their own as they age and gain independence.
Whether our teens like it or not, they need our protection and preparation more than ever.
In the physical world, this task is hard enough, but the steps are a bit more difficult in the dizzying digital world of the 21st century.
Here are some very practical things you can do as parents to Protect & Prepare your kids online:
Learn to say No. It's a full sentence. Teach this skill to your kids as well.
Make personal awareness a lifelong conversation. Talk about things like the importance of walking with your eyes and ears open, noticing the behaviors of people around you, and avoiding those who make you uncomfortable. These skills are invaluable in the virtual world.
Give your kids a phone only when YOU need them to have a phone. In other words, when you are taking them places where they will need to be able to call you independently to come pick them up or if there is an emergency. If the kids are not old enough the handle that responsibility, they are not ready for the heady and dangerous world of the internet.
Remember: Parental controls exist for parents' peace of mind. Kids and predators know how to get around them in a flash, so don't rely on them for keeping your kids safe any more than you might rely on bubble wrap to protect them after dropping them off alone in the local drug den.
Do some research and find the best monitoring and filtering software for your family's needs. Be sure you get the MONITORING portion as well as filtering. Remember, predators are trying to find your kids. And they are very good at looking like every other innocent child and teen out there.
The best monitoring and filtering software includes its own search engines. Use those and get rid of Safari, Google, and other direct access search engines. Use software that takes screenshots and or monitors keystrokes. Sound overprotective? Read the next item.
Use every APP your kid or teen wants BEFORE you decide whether it is appropriate for your kid. But don't use it as your 47 year old self. Use it like a kid or a teen would. Only then will you see what your kids will see if you let them into the real world of each APP. Use the APPs for a week or more to get a good look around. Only then will you see that on Musical.ly, a hot APP for preteens right now, millions are live-streaming their own personal exploits, but also innumerable exploits most of us never thought were exploits. Only by doing more than checking what your teen is posting and hearting, will you learn that innocent Instagram has an awesome feature texting feature where the messages instantly disappear from the device. Haha! Nosy mom cannot see them! And this doesn't even make scratches in the tip of the iceberg.
Once you've used an APP and determined you are good with your kids having it, keep your account and friend your kids.
Even with the best monitoring software, spot checks of devices are every parent's best friend.
That brings us to passwords: always have them. You own the devices, you own the passwords.
With all of this, nothing trumps keeping in tune with your kids and teens. Understanding who they are and the normal ebb and flow of their moods can help you notice when something is really off. Unusual moods or behavior for your kid can indicate unusual online behavior.
Sound like a lot of work? It is. It can be exhausting and seem overwhelming. But so is keeping track of their physical whereabouts and ensuring there's a parent at every party.
We do this exhausting work, not so much out of distrust of our kids, but to protect them from the untrustworthy people in the world and to teach them how to identify and protect themselves from those same people.
Feel free to share in the comments what you have done to Protect & Prepare your kids online.
Christine Parker, MA is a Provisionally Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with many years of experience working with individuals, couples, and families.