Why can’t people just be nice? Why on earth would someone hack into and splice a children’s video with images of a cartoonish but terrifying character that is poised to star in their nightmares? What in the world would entice people on a game forum to instruct or bully children into harming themselves? Just. Why. I never intended to write a post like this, I hate that I even have to. However, this past week I have been inundated with stories such as these and their real world impacts. It breaks my heart. So I’m doing it. Let’s talk about how to do your gosh darned best to protect your kiddo online.
There is a ton of controversy over “screen time” I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that, but here is a good article if you’d like to know what is currently recommended. It is my opinion that less is better. Your kids want your time and attention more than they want anything else. That being said, I understand that “screen time” is real and here to stay, and that there are real benefits to it. Pros and cons! Here are some of my suggestions for how to both prepare your children for the online world and how to respond if the online world treats your kiddo badly.
~Don’t make assumptions about content. Here’s the tough lesson we have all learned lately. Just because something is on a forum we use a lot or because it seems familiar, it doesn’t mean it’s totally legit. Research which apps are safest, how to block out content not appropriate for children and review everything before you give them access. It’s more work, but that way you will have seen what your child will be seeing.
~Watch with your child. I get this is not always possible (especially if they are watching “Baby Shark” for the millionth time in a row) but this can be a nice break for both of you. Talk about what you watch with your child and ask them questions “wow! They are swimming so fast! Where do you think they’ll go next?”. It’s great bonding that increases their vocabulary and critical thinking skills.
~ Remember that devices and screen time are a privilege, not a right. I don’t like thinking about them as a “reward” but they can be something your child can earn, or lose depending on rules in your home and you are the gatekeeper who manages their access. It’s ok to say “no” to various apps or forums. It’s ok to be the administrator who holds the password. It’s ok to say when and for how long they get to use them.
~ If your child has been a victim of online bullying, harassment, or unwelcome content there are signs to look out for. Sleep may be disrupted, or there may be a fear to sleep or do other things that weren’t previously an issue. Your child may become preoccupied by a topic or begin playing in an aggressive or unusual way. Your child may be more irritable, distracted, or restless. Your child may begin asking questions or making statements that seem too mature (or just out of character) for them. Any major or sudden changes in basic skills (such as eating, toileting, doing things alone, etc) emotions, or behaviors should be paid close attention to.
~ Talk to your child. Tell them what your noticing. Assure them they will not be in trouble if they saw something online that is making them upset. Talking about it helps. If they struggle, name something that scared you or made you upset in your childhood and how you handled it. Tell them that you are going to help them through this because what happened is not ok and not their fault. Remind them that everyone gets scared sometimes and it’s good to have help when they’re afraid. Reassure them that things they see online are often not real, or often wrong, but understand that their fear or sadness is real. Ask them how they think you can work together to solve their problem. It may be something fun like inventing “monster spray” that you spray in their room before bed time so that they won’t have nightmares. Or dressing up like superheroes and running around the house, warding off “bad guys”. It may be having them carry around a favorite stuffed animal to the bus because they are afraid to be on the street. Maybe it’s writing down everyone in the real world who think they’re amazing. Whatever it is, your presence and assistance is critical to them moving through it. During this time, be more vigilant-don’t allow them to go online without you and if they need the light on to feel safe enough to sleep, let them. This should not last long, but if the fear seems to be sticking around for more than two weeks, it’s time to seek out help. To being safe online and everywhere!