Parenting in the Age of Internet, Social Media and Cell Phones
Warning: This is a crazy-long post. Better grab a cup of tea.
When I had tiny ones, my mom-friends fell into two extreme camps regarding Baby Proofing.
Camp One graduated from the Parenting School of Baby Wise. They put a small blanket in the middle of the living room floor and placed their squirmy baby in the middle of it. When their squirmy baby tried to do what squirmy babies do—namely crawl—they’d point their finger and say, “NO CRAWL!”
These parents didn’t put away a darn thing. They locked no cabinets, put up nothing fragile, gated no stairways. They just said things like, “NO TOUCH!” And “NO KNIVES!” And “NO MOVE!” Constantly.
Camp Two strolled down the Baby Proofing Aisle at Babies R Us and bought it.
All of it.
While they were still pregnant.
Before baby even made an entrance into the dangerous house, every cabinet was locked, every stairway gated, every toilet lid secured, every outlet covered and every door handle rendered useless (because no one—not even Mom—can open a door knob with one of those plastic covers on it). These moms also installed video monitors, because it’s not good enough to hear the baby sleeping…WE MUST SEE BABY SLEEPING!
I fell somewhere between those extremes. I took care of the obviously deadly things. I locked up the poisons and moved all sharp objects out of baby’s reach. I bought monitors, but only the hearing kind.
Other than that, I waited until baby could move before I installed a single baby-proofing gadget. I followed closely behind my newly-mobile child to see what dangerous thing he or she might find interesting. Then I’d go ahead and adjust or remove or lock that thing to make it safe. My child could then explore the house freely and safely, but I didn’t have to have 700 baby proofing devices installed. Only those necessary for that child.
Safely navigating internet and phone usage is a lot like Baby Proofing.
What Internet Safety Used to Mean
Just a few short years ago when my teen was a toddler, internet safety meant that you kept your big ole PC in a central area of the home. You set time limits. You installed a filter so they didn’t accidentally click on porn. And, thanks to dial-up, internet connections were painstakingly slow, thus, not very alluring to impatient kids.
And phones? Most people still used landlines. Cell phones were “car phones” permanently installed in the vehicle. Or they were the size of a loaf of bread—and terribly expensive. Most adults didn’t even have them, never mind kids. Easy-peasy for mom and dad to set limits and monitor all things electronic.
What Internet Safety Means Now
With laptops, tablets, iPads, iPod-Touches, smart phones, and Kindles, there is no such thing as “keeping your computer in a central area.” Computers are with us and with our kids—in our pockets, in our cars, in our classrooms, in our bedrooms—all the time. Filters are helpful on some devices, but can be easily bypassed on Apple products by downloading an app that will take a kid wherever she wants to go. Some filters do not work on Android devices at all. Some devices have parental controls built in, but they are only partially helpful.
If you figure out how to protect your kids today, tomorrow eventually comes. And with tomorrow, new technology designed to override your restrictions.
No one really knows exactly how fast the internet world is growing. But between 1995 and 2011 the number of registered domains jumped from 15,000 to 350,000,000. That doesn’t even account for the popularity explosion of various social media sites or the increase in technology making all of this easier and faster and more accessible to anyone, anytime.
This adds a dimension of responsibility in parenting that is time-consuming, emotionally taxing and downright overwhelming.
I’ve spent the better part of four years trying to keep up with technology for the sole purpose of protecting my kids. I’ve been diligent and vigilant. I’ve been informed and well-read. I’ve monitored and supervised. I’ve initiated discussions and administered consequences.
I’ve talked to a lot of other parents.
I’ve cried a lot.
I’ve prayed a lot.
Yet, still… my kids have found ways (accidentally and on-purpose) to access inappropriate or harmful things on the internet. And I’ve got great kids. It’s so distressing.
More than once, I’ve wished the whole stupid internet away.
It didn’t work.
What I Know For Sure
1. The internet is here to stay. If we don’t figure out how to navigate it with our children, it will simply run right over us and take our kids with it.
2. Technology is advancing at warp speed, which renders most of our limits and restrictions obsolete in a very short time. We must keep up.
3. Even if we decide on certain age limits and restrictions for our home, technology may override our decisions. For example, it won’t be long before all cell phones will be smart phones—you won’t even be able to purchase a phone without internet access. (The local at&t store currently has only two cell phones for sale without internet access.) In our high school, all students get a mandatory iPad. If I don’t want my child to have one, I have to choose a different school or homeschool her.
4. Kids socialize on the internet with their real-life friends. I know there is still a very real element of stranger-danger out there. But, gone are the days of “virtual friendships” vs. “real friendships.” For teens, all their friends (the real ones they talk to in person at school) gather on social media to hang out after hours. It has become a vital element of high school social interaction.
5. Even if your at-home boundaries are working well, kids have friends with different boundaries. Your kids will be exposed to things while with those friends or in their homes. I am shocked to see that most of my kids’ friends (6th and 9th grade) have iPhones!
6. The best internet filters won’t catch everything. Safe Eyes let my son play an animated games called “Naughty Hottie.” When I received the weekly report of his activity it said, “Nothing unusual to report.”
7. Even if your kids are engaging in appropriate internet activity, the bad things will find them. Thanks to a banner ad, my son discovered Naughty Hottie while on the filtered-family computer, playing appropriate games, in the daytime, while everyone was home, and the painter-guy was here. I’ve found spam for penis enhancement drugs in my daughter’s e-mail. I’ve seen suggested porn videos in the sidebar while my son was watching Nerf Gun Wars on You Tube. My daughter was cyber-bullied on Ask.fm. (we have since deleted that account).
8. Satan hates your kids and wants to destroy your family. He will use the internet to do that, because it’s a breeding ground for that type of thing.
Back to the Baby Proofing Analogy
As a parent to a high schooler and a middle schooler, I see two extreme camps when it comes to phone/internet/social media boundaries.
Camp One decided long ago that their kids would not get sucked in to the age of cell phones and computers. They forbid their kids to own any hand-held devices with an on/off switch. If their kids need to reach a friend, they use the landline (or Mom’s smart phone) and invite the friend over for face-to-face interaction. The way they handle social media is to simply not allow it.
Camp Two loves all-things-technology and has provided all-things-technology for their children. They know there are dangers out there, but hope and pray their kid isn’t the one getting into any trouble. For them, the awesomeness of the technology far outweighs the danger. The way they handled social media is to give them full access, early and often, then hope for the best.
I fall somewhere between. You probably do, too.
My method of setting and enforcing boundaries has been a combination of allowing limited technology and freedom, monitoring closely, seeing where the kid takes it and then adjusting when necessary. Before handing over any device with internet access, I investigate and install the best filter I can find. I set parental controls appropriate for that child. And then I watch and wait.
Most of this process is an exercise in Trial and Error, emphasis on the Error.
1. When Rebekah turned 11, we bought her a small, inexpensive laptop. We thought she’d need it for middle school homework. (She didn’t). I opened up an e-mail account for her and I created a Facebook account. (Yes, I know the age limit is 13. My reasoning was that her out-of-town family members including aunts, uncles cousins and grandparents were all active on Facebook and it would be a great way for her to stay connected. Plus, I love Facebook and could easily monitor her activity there.)
Heh. Yeah right.
It wasn’t long before she “friended” classmates who used inappropriate language on her page. They participated in Facebook surveys that showed up on her wall: “Your friend Connor just answered the question, ‘Do you think Rebekah is sexy?’ To see Connor’s answer, click here.” And then she’d click, and the Facebook app would ask her to participate in her own survey with very inappropriate questions.
She listed herself as “single” (because, at 11-years-old, she was) and sexy singles ads appeared in her sidebar.
One time, a Facebook app automatically posted a spammy soft-porn image on the page of several of her friends—including her male teacher at church—saying it was from her, without our knowledge. (thank you, stupid surveys!)
Long story short, after almost a year on Facebook, I realized monitoring my middle-schooler was bigger and more time-consuming than I could handle. So, I put my foot down: No Facebook until high school.
(She is now in high school, but her friends are no longer on Facebook—they’ve moved on to Instagram and Ask.fm and Snap Chat and Vine and Tumblr…this is how fast these things grow obsolete in Internet Land.)
If I had to do it all over again, I never would have bought the computer. And the Facebook thing…that was just stupid.
My Rules Today
This summer, one mom-blogger posted her family’s Screen Rules, and the post went viral. It was a great post with great ideas. I loved it. But I found that much of it didn’t apply to my family—or maybe only applied to one kid and not the other.
It got me thinking, though, that a written contract is a great idea. I need to have an on-going list of restrictions, expectations and consequences for each kid. We need to discuss it, review it and update it often. That way there’s no surprises for anyone.
Rules for my 12-Year-Old
For my son’s 12th birthday, we bought him a cell phone. This was a calculated decision, based on the fact that I like to be able to communicate with my kids when they are away from me.
The phone has calling and texting abilities, only. We also have Smart Limits through at&t, which allow us to set text limits, time limits, hour restrictions and block numbers, if necessary.
We have disabled Elijah’s internet access on his iPod Touch. Music only, until high school. He may only use the internet on the family computer, which is in the kitchen, with our permission. When he is home alone, I disable the wifi.
(I’m not messing around.)
(He has shown inability to handle internet responsibly. In retrospect, I should have never allowed him to have the iPod Touch in the first place.)
(More trial and error.)
Here is the contract he signed regarding phone usage. Like baby proofing, this list of rules is unique to my son based on what we know about him.
1. You may text between 7:30 am and 8:30 pm. You can text Mom, Dad and Rebekah any time—but if Rebekah is sleeping, please be sensitive to that. (This is for his safety, as my daughter will pummel him if he wakes her up.)
2. You have a texting limit of 750 per month. You earn more texts by showing your maturity with these rules.
3. Your phone will charge on the kitchen counter. If you want it the next day, it must be there by 8:30 pm. Please keep your charger there (don’t move it to another outlet).
4. The phone belongs to Dad and Mom. If you lose or break it, you replace it. If you abuse the rules, you lose the phone.
5. If the phone rings and it’s one of your parents, please answer immediately. If we text you, please respond as soon as you can. If we can’t reach you on your phone and you did not have an excellent reason for not responding, then when we finally do reach you, we will take the phone.
6. If you text or call us (Mom or Dad) and we don’t respond right away, it’s because we can’t. Probably driving or in a meeting or the shower or something. We will respond as soon as we possibly can. Trust us, we won’t ignore your calls/texts. You are our top priority and we allow you to have a phone primarily to communicate with us.
7. Please put the phone away at the dinner table.
8. When you are with actual people in the same room, don’t text. It’s rude. And you are not a rude person. You are awesome.
9. Please text boys only, until further notice. Girl-babysitters, girl-adults and girl-family are the exceptions. (I’m not sure when I’ll allow him to text girls—maybe a year. Maybe never.)
10. Do not delete any texts without asking me first.
11. Don’t text people multiple times in a row unless it’s an emergency. Some people find this annoying. People don’t always have their phones and can’t always reply immediately. Be patient.
12. Do not engage in texting conversations that hurt other people. Ever. Whether in person or online, there is no reason to hurt someone else. Ever. If someone writes something hurtful about someone else in a space you control (like your phone), I expect you to delete those comments. This sends a strong message that you will not tolerate that on your space.
13. Don’t argue or fight with someone over texting. If someone is important enough in your life to spend time arguing, do it in person, where you can read all the other cues of communication. At the very least, call.
14. Don’t say anything via text that you wouldn’t want other people to read. I will be reading your texts. And you never know if someone will “forward” your text without telling you. You can be a kid, just be sure to be a good kid, a respectful kid….all the time.
15. Don’t text when you are angry and need to vent. This puts your angry feelings in writing and you don’t want that. Please vent in a safe place with a trusted friend. BTW, I will ALWAYS be that trusted friend if you need me to be, no matter the time or place.
16. Ask permission before snapping a picture or recording someone. Don’t ever send pictures of other people via text without their permission. Ever.
17. No sending or receiving pictures where you or another person are not fully clothed. No exceptions. Ever. You or a friend may think it’s funny, but it’s dangerous and illegal.
18. Remember who you are. Every time you speak—or text—you not only represent yourself, you represent our family. Even more, you represent Jesus Christ. Whenever in doubt about anything, take a minute and ask God for wisdom and guidance. He will always guide you. Always.
19. These rules will change as you get older—just be prepared for the updated version whenever we feel it’s necessary.
Rules for my 14-Year-Old
Rebekah has a different set of rules. Partly because she’s older. Partly because she’s a different kid. Partly because she’s a girl. And partly because I extended freedom to her at a younger age and it’s really difficult to retract it once I’ve allowed it, particularly if she has handled the freedom with maturity.
Rebekah has filtered and monitored internet access on her iPod and laptop. Her school provides the filter for the iPad. When she baby-sits at home for us, we disable the wifi and do not allow her to use the cell phone. She must use the landline.
Here is her list of rules as they stand today.
1. You may text and have internet access between 7:00 am and 10:00 pm. You can text Mom, Dad and Elijah any time.
2. All devices charge on the kitchen counter. If you want them the next day, they must be there by 10 pm. Don’t move the charger, please. (This one proves to be the most difficult for us to enforce, because we go to bed before her many nights, as she is up doing homework with her iPad well past 10 pm)
3. If you are on the internet in your room, you must open your bedroom door. (This is the second-hardest one to enforce, as Rebekah has always done her homework alone in her room with her door closed. With the iPad, it poses all sorts of complications!)
4. The devices belong to Dad and Mom. If you lose them or break them, you replace them. If you abuse the rules, you lose them indefinitely.
5. If the phone rings and it’s one of your parents, please answer immediately. If we text you, please respond as soon as you can. If we can’t reach you on your phone and you did not have an excellent reason for not responding, then when we finally do reach you, we will take the phone. (We just followed through on this one last week.)
6. If you text or call us and we don’t respond right away, it’s because we can’t. Probably driving or in a meeting or the shower or something. We will respond as soon as we possibly can. Trust us, we won’t ignore your calls/texts. You are our top priority and we allow you to have a phone primarily to communicate with us.
7. Please put electronics away at the dinner table.
8. When you are with actual people in the same room, don’t text. It’s rude. And you are not a rude person. You are awesome.
9. Mom follows you on all social media accounts and has access to all usernames and passwords. (She despises this, just FYI.)
10. Do not create any new social media or e-mail accounts without my express permission. (Currently, she only has Instagram and Snap Chat—and I monitor both.) (Seriously, Snap Chat…what is the point?)
11. Set social media accounts to the highest privacy settings.
12. Only accept online friendships with people you know in real life.
13. Mom and Dad have access to your devices whenever we ask for whatever reason we see fit.
14. No profanity. You are a beautiful Christian young lady who is better than the f-bomb. Hold yourself to a high standard and people will treat you that way.
15. Do not engage in texting conversations that hurt other people. Ever. Whether in person or online, there is no reason to hurt someone else. Ever. If someone writes something hurtful about someone else in a space you control, I expect you to delete those comments. This sends a strong message that you will not tolerate that on your space.
16. Don’t argue or fight with someone over texting or social media. If someone is important enough in your life to spend time arguing, do it in person or call.
17. Don’t say anything via text or social media that you wouldn’t want other people to read or that you don’t want to exist forever. There is no such thing as privacy in social media and you have no control over what other people do with your text messages, e-mails or photos.
18. Don’t text when you are angry and need to vent. This puts your angry feelings in writing and you don’t want that. Please vent in a safe place with a trusted friend. BTW, I will ALWAYS be that trusted friend if you need me to be, no matter the time or place.
19. Ask permission before snapping a picture or recording someone. Don’t ever send pictures of other people via text without their permission. Ever. (Just had this conversation with her about an hour ago.)
20. No sending or receiving pictures where you or another person are not fully clothed. No exceptions. Ever. You or a friend may think it’s funny or sexy, but it’s dangerous and illegal.
21. No pictures, Skype or Snap Chat of you in your pj’s or from your bedroom or bathroom. When in doubt, as yourself if Mom would be okay with the actual person seeing me like this in my house. Would this person be allowed to sit on my bed and talk to me? Go into the bathroom with me? If not, then don’t do it. (Insert talk about how boys think and temptation and purity, etc, etc, etc.)
22. Remember who you are. Wherever you go, you not only represent yourself, you represent our family. Even more, you represent Jesus Christ. Whenever in doubt about anything, take a minute and ask God for wisdom and guidance. He will always guide you. Always.
23. In a few short years, you will have complete control over your life—social media and otherwise. This list of rules will become increasingly more lenient as you reach that age. Show maturity in your online behavior and during discussions with us about your online behavior and you earn more freedom. Because you are awesome like that.
A Word About Downloading Music
In our house, we share one iTunes account and I hold the password. I am happy to pay for music and games the entire family can enjoy (who knew how much I’d love One Direction?). If a kid wants to download something, I must approve it first. If I am unfamiliar with a song or if a child disagrees with my decision about a song, the child must look up the lyrics and read them aloud to me. This helps the kid learn to self-monitor for content—because nothing kills the allure of an inappropriate song better than reading the lyrics aloud to your mother.
So, that’s pretty much where we are today. Of course, in the length of time it took me to write this post, about 5000 new websites launched, so most of this will be obsolete by February. But still.
Q4U: How in the world are you navigating this whole internet/cell phone/social media mess? Do you have an internet contract for your kids? What rules or boundaries do you set in place? How old do you think a kid should be to have a cell phone or a smart phone?
And, omg, which One Direction guy is your favorite?
Wow, Sandy, this is great! I’ve been lax in a “bury my head in the sand” kind of a way. I truly believe my kids handle their devices well, but I need to be more aware. One of my co-workers was telling me about an app that sends all her kids texts to HER phone so she can peruse them all. Brilliant. Now I just need to follow up on getting that on my phone.
I love your comparison to babyproofing. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that simple time – but at the time, we felt it was so hard. (Which is was, it just seems easy in hindsight:)
Thank you for taking the time to write this and share. I’m still so confused on the Facebook thing for my 13 year-old….sigh.
Let’s soldier on together, friend 🙂
I’m thinking that app would just work if everyone has an iphone or something, wouldn’t it? I can’t see how a regular cell phone could send texts to another phone via an app. If you get details on this, let me know.
I understand about burying your head in the sand. I’ve vacillate between being hyper-vigilent and refusing to pay attention. I’m finally finding the balance in this, realizing it isn’t going away and I need to stay on top of it for the sake of my kids.
So glad I have like-minded moms to link arms with in this parenting journey. 🙂
Great post. My favorite tip was reading the song lyrics aloud. Brilliant!
I think contracts are good things. Anytime you explain expectations then I think it helps between anyone be they parent and child or husband and wife. I think with the internet it is making us be people who remember less and memorize less because everything is at our fingertips. Somehow I think that is bad and we better not lose the skill of memorizing stuff.
Although our kids are grown I still like to emphasis that we should do stuff face to face or live on the phone. A lot is lost in texts.
GREAT post Sandy! I’m not a parent so I’ve not really given much thought to this issue but your blog was very eye-opening for me. In fact, I’ve shared it on Pinterest and Facebook because I know sooo many who will benefit from your ideas. You and Jon are amazing people and amazing parents. I think the boundaries you’ve set in place are very in balance. Good job!
GOOD for you and Jon! You must do what you need to do.
As you know, I do not have children, but I’m thinking that if I did, I have to lock them in the house and never let them out… never! 🙂 OR I’d be the helicopter mom who micromanages the life out of them.
In the end, your children will thank you for doing all of this…
Cheers to you!
Loved reading every last detail!
A) work through your rules together
B) put them down in black and white for each kid to follow….
This is a great post — super informative. I agree we need to base rules on who we are dealing with, not just by age and gender. We follow a lot of the same rules — my kids are younger and don’t have phones yet. We do have an iPad they share, which has no Safari on it. And now since iTunes radio has launched, we have had immense conversations about which music is appropriate. Because what you think might be safe, isn’t.
And One Direction. Totally overtakes my running music mix.
Great post! We have MANY of the same rules with our kids and their phones (almost all the same rules as your son, as our girls are also 12). We have no pads or laptops yet, but that will be coming soon because we just don’t have enough computers in our house for homework time!
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