Most days I count my lucky stars that we’re in this phase of parenting. We sleep well at night. Everyone is in charge of wiping their own behinds. If someone needs a snack, they can get it themselves. Life is pretty good.
And then there are days when I get glimpses of what’s coming. Like the day I glanced at Elena’s Kik account on the iPad and saw someone’s avatar that would make the people at Playboy blush. After my eyeballs stopped burning and my stomach stopped churning I thanked the heavens above that I saw it before she did.
It took a brush with porn to remind me that this next chapter of parenting a tween/teen will require just as much, if not more, vigilance than parenting a toddler. Unlike a toddler, who is rarely out of a caregiver’s sight, Elena’s entering an online world where we can’t be present all the time. And so Mike and I felt it was time to institute technology boot camp. We feel strongly that this is the age to teach healthy guidelines for using technology. Much like talking to her about sex, this is the time to talk openly while she’s still impressionable and actually listening – as opposed to rolling her eyes and texting her friends about how clueless her parents are.
The goal of our boot camp isn’t to clamp down on Elena’s tech use or monitor every move she makes. Much like teaching other life skills that will (hopefully) allow her to enter the world as a functioning, responsible adult, our goal is to teach her how to use technology responsibly. We want to show her how technology can be a useful and entertaining part of her life, while at the same time help her to set healthy habits so that it doesn’t become her whole life. Boot camp began by writing up an official set of rules for screens in our family (which for our kids includes television, computers, a Nintendo DSi, iPhones, an iPad and Elena’s iTouch). Along with the rules, we’re using these guidelines to steer Elena in the right direction.
If you don’t want it read over school announcements, don’t text it or post it.
According to a study done by the Pew Internet and American Life Project last year, teens send and receive an average of 60 texts per day. Elena isn’t near that yet, thanks to screentime limits, but she does exchange a decent amount of messages with her friends on afternoons and weekends. Whether it’s via text, Instagram, Kik or whatever else they come up with next, we frequently remind her of this message. NOTHING you put out there is private, and once it’s out there, it’s out there forever.
The internet will still be there when you wake up.
At this age, there is nothing so urgent Elena needs to see that can’t wait until after dinner, after homework is done, or when she wakes up tomorrow. The internet – and shockingly enough – your friends, can live without you. Life will be much more enjoyable if she can build up the willpower to walk away. There are so many things in life that won’t always be there – people, places, special moments. If she never learns to look up from a screen, she’ll miss what real life is all about.
Just because everyone else is using it doesn’t mean it’s for you.
After the incident with the raunchy avatar, we deleted Elena’s Kik account. We started a new one and drastically changed the privacy settings, but I’m still not convinced it’s okay. I check it often and Elena knows that if I see a hint of anything that I’m not cool with, it’s gone. Nearly every kid with a phone or iTouch in her school uses it, and she’ll be upset, but that’s how it’s going to be. The lesson here is that there are always going to be social media tools that “everyone” is using, and they’ll try to convince you that you’re missing out on something huge if you’re not on it. Do a few things, learn them and use them well, and if you’re not comfortable with it? Drop it from your life.
The rules are there for a reason.
Elena isn’t 13, and therefore she doesn’t have a Facebook account. Can you get around the rules? Yes. Do her friends have Facebook accounts? Sure. Can she get around the rules? Nope. I stand firmly behind the Facebook minimum age because I believe kids under the age of 13 aren’t mature enough for that kind of social media responsibility. Our limits on screen time and when and where you can use screens are there to make sure our kids grow up knowing how to function without constant entertainment. I don’t think anyone can or should dictate what your technology rules are, but I do believe that you should have some that work for your family and enforce them consistently.
Some things are best communicated the old-fashioned way.
Here’s where our inner Grandpas come out. Nothing drives me battier than Elena whining that no one can play because they’re not responding to her text messages. Let me introduce you to this mode of communication called the telephone, where you call the person and talk to them … with actual words that come out of your mouth. God forbid you actually knock on their front door! Laugh all you want, but this is how this generation thinks – if someone’s not online, they aren’t available for interaction. Beyond making plans, some things should never be communicated via text, email or Facebook. Bad news, difficult conversations and apologies need to be delivered personally. Now excuse me while I go find my Metamucil.
Are we being unrealistic or naive? I don’t know. What we do know is that at this age, the trends we’re seeing don’t feel right. It doesn’t feel right to let her be in front of a screen for virtually every waking minute she’s not in school – and if left to her own devices she would spend more time on screens than outside or with a book. It doesn’t feel right to see Elena and her friends in the same room together with their heads bent over their phones. It doesn’t feel right to let her choose her social networks without a fair amount of looking over her shoulder at this age.
Just like our early days as parents, I know we’re floundering at times. I know we’ll make mistakes. But we’ll keep at it because we know that our kids will struggle if we don’t do our best to lay a good foundation on which to build their virtual lives on.
How are you handling your kids first steps into an online presence?