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How To Keep Your Kid’s Digital Life In Check

Your kids were born into a connected world. On average, it takes less than 50 days before a newborn has their picture online (never trust an OB with a selfie stick). As they grow, the Internet integrates seamlessly into their lives. Kids watch streaming videosplay online games, interact with cloud-based smart toys. Sure, social media and the web offer opportunities to learn, grow, and expose your kid to the world — but it also exposes your kid to the world. How do you ensure they’re healthy and safe in their digital lives?

Family Online Safety Institute CEO Stephen Balkam, and recent panelist at Facebook’s Safety Summit, has made it his job to keep kids safe on the web since the Internet first came on the scene. He urges parents and kids to agree to a contract for online behavior and strike a balance between giving them Internet freedom and being a stalker. And Balkam freely admits that getting the right ratio is a challenge. “That’s the Holy Grail of good digital parenting,” Balkam says. “If you ask me precisely how to do that, I’m sorry I can’t. You’ll either overdo it or underdo it. But welcome to parenting.”

girl sleeping with tablet

Talk About The Web On The Reg

“The number one thing is to talk to your kids,” Balkam says. “If you do nothing else, talk with your kids early and often.” Now, talking to them doesn’t mean running through some quick bullet points and calling it a day. To be effective, the conversation needs to be ongoing and constantly evolving. Your child’s digital life is going to change drastically as they age. And your kids are going to need more information and guidance from you. “It’s not the birds and the bees where it’s one and done,” Balkam says. “You’re going to be talking about this all the way through their childhood and teenage years.”

Don’t Be A COPPA Chameleon

Under 1998’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, kids can’t join Facebook and other social media sites until they’re 13. It’s easy to skirt the age restriction, and Balkam says parents often encourage their children to create accounts by lying about their age. “By some counts, there are between 7 and 8 million under 13 accounts on Facebook in North America alone,” Balkam says. And that’s definitely a concern because the world of selfies, trolls, and anger is not for first graders. And neither is exposure to those mind-eroding food videos that feature cheese sticks getting jackhammered into jalapenos.

In the rush to establish a kid’s social media account, you’re telling kids it’s okay to lie while exposing them to the world. “If a 10-year-old tells Facebook they’re 25, their posts are automatically defaulted to public,” Balkam says. “If they waited until they were 13 and were honest, they’d get special privacy protections.”

Make The Rules Clear And Obvious

Balkam’s FOSI site offers an online safety contract parents and kids agree to follow. Whatever online agreement your family establishes, make it easy to remember by posting it in a place that’s easy to find. “Keep it on the fridge and it’s a constant reminder,” Balkam said. Proposed rule number one: No thirst traps.

Big Daddy Becomes Big Brother

Tech may have caused this new issue, but it can also help monitor it. Through services like Mobilespy and PhoneSheriff, parents can track and even restrict their kid’s cell phone use. “Many of the filtering devices can include a weekly download of sites or activity that’s been going on, like phone numbers and text messages,” Balkam said.

Worried about looking like a paranoid, untrustworthy creep? Don’t freak out. You don’t have to stoop to digital surveillance to keep an eye on your kids. Just bust out basic-level dad tricks: Peek into their online lives with simple and unobtrusive steps like checking internet history. Even a phone bill can offer insight. “We discovered that our daughter’s level of texting had gone out of control by looking online at the phone bill,” Balkam said. “It didn’t say what the texts were, it just gave phone numbers to and from and the time and day. That itself was an indication she was texting through class and when she should have been asleep.”

The Dad Giveth The Phone And The Dad Can Taketh Away

Kids need to know that the phone is not theirs to have without caveats. Much like a car, phones and laptops are pieces of technology that need to be treated with respect. And if a kid screws up by breaking a rule you’ve set, texting too much, or posting recklessly, Balkam says you should take away the device. “Don’t shoot your daughter’s laptop,” Balkam says. “Find that reasonable middle ground. Taking a child’s phone away for 24 hours really gets their attention.”

Digital Steps Leave Digital Footprints

Teens put a lot of regrettable content online, from risqué selfies to awful poetry. Balkam says they stop when the risk over-sharing poses to their future becomes clear. “With high school kids, particularly with girls, their freshman and sophomore years’ online behavior is riskier and more daring than their junior and senior years when they realize ‘oh god I’m going to apply for college,’” says Balkam. Try to persuade kids that their present day openness will be found and judged in the future by prospective schools, employers, and romantic partners.

Parents May Have To Change, Too

Painful though it may be, you have to practice what you preach. “Kids will do what you do–not what you tell them to do,” Balkam said. “If you take your phone to bed and it’s the last thing you look at and the first thing you check when you wake up in the morning, that’s exactly what your kids will do. If you stash it in a closet at night, they’ll follow your lead.”