My older child takes part in open source projects, posts on forums about topics he’s interested in, and uses the Internet daily in his education, his leadership/service projects, and his social life. He’s now almost 18, but he’s been online for many years, starting in the Scratch community at the age of 9.
My younger child is an active Youtuber. He loves Instagram. He chats with friends he’s never met in person. He loves to share his creative work, and he takes part in conversations about topics that interest him.
I think that overall taking part in creative communities and finding people to share interests online is an extremely positive experience for most kids. They get direct feedback on their work, and get to feel like they are taking part in a larger creative conversation. I definitely feel that parents who keep their kids off the Internet are being too cautious, sort of like not letting them travel to a nearby city by automobile because it’s more dangerous than walking. The benefits are so great it’s worth taking some risks.
However – the big however – I also think it’s really important for parents to be aware and to educate their children. Kids are growing up as digital natives, and this is all within “normal” for them. So we adults run the risk of sounding like reactionary old fogies when we talk to our kids.
Lots of parents are confused about whether they should allow their kids to share online, and how they should do it. Ours is an imperfect system, of course (all family systems are). But I’m offering it up as an example for others to consider.
Here are the restrictions we put on our kids’ Internet usage:
1) Before the age of 13, they chose a pseudonym to use online and were not allowed to divulge their real name to anyone we already didn’t know IRL. My younger one is still using the pseudonym as a Youtuber, though now 14. My older one, who is building the foundations of a career, uses his real name.
2) Everyone in the family is required to have a master password that they write on a piece of paper (how 20th century!) and keep in a sealed envelope in a special place. This is just in case of emergency, and we’ve never opened these envelopes and hope we’ll never need to.
3) I subscribe to my kids’ channels and connect with them on all of their social media. For one of them, this is easy. The other one loves to generate new accounts, so it’s a challenge! But I feel that they shouldn’t be saying anything online that they wouldn’t feel comfortable saying IRL, and I hope that my presence as their online “friend” normalizes this connection between the online and physical world. I don’t snoop, but I do want to know where they are if I need to help them.
Bad things happen
Of course we all read the horror stories about kids on the Internet. But here are some of the bad things that are actually likely to happen:
Unless your child creates a password-protected blog and only unlisted Youtube videos, others will be able to find them. Those others may have different values. The most common thing that raises my hackles is the type of language used in comments on Youtube. This is something you won’t be able to get away from. In our family, we just talk about how this isn’t the way we talk to each other, and we try to brush it off.
You will also get people who are dismissive or critical – maybe once or maybe they will move into bullying behavior. In any case, your kid is likely at some point to get “you suck” type of comments. My Youtuber just totally shrugs them off. But more sensitive kids might need support when this happens, and of course, extended bullying has to be dealt with.
Kids also get really drawn into conversations and can experience obsessive/emotional/depressive behaviors as a result. Again, how kids react to this depends on what they’re like to begin with, and parents can watch for signs and keep an open dialogue if they are concerned.
But what about the really horrific stories?
And then there are those other horror stories: My personal approach is to know that we take appropriate precautions in our family and that these things are unlikely to happen. And also, they’re just unlikely in any case. Just like stranger abduction, they’re scary but much less frequent than the media leads us to believe.
What our family aims for is creating the same balance in online life that we try to have in “real” life: We want our children to be independent, creative, and to feel comfortable exploring. We also want them know that we love them, support them, and have their backs when people mistreat them.
Each family, of course, makes their own decisions based on their own values and experiences. The important thing to consider is whether you are communicating those values and experiences to your children by making reasonable, supportive rules for their online lives.
- I love KidsHealth.org—here’s their Internet safety advice for parents.
- Common Sense Media has advice for parents on all sorts of Internet safety-related topics.
- All kids should learn about Digital Literacy.
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