(Note: This article is part of my series called Protecting Children Online. This article, The Value of Family Discussion, discusses the need for parents to talk with their children about online safety and developing a family plan for use of the Internet.)
Believe it or not, children still care very much about what their parents think–even when they’re teenagers. And households that have made it a family practice to have family meetings and discussions down through the years find it easier to reach middle ground about agreed limits on Internet usage and time spent online. Talking with your teen and helping them to understand your concerns, and why you have expectations regarding their use of the Internet and where they visit online, is always worth the investment of time. (But, if you haven’t held anything remotely like a family meeting since they were in 2nd grade, it’ll be more of a struggle for sure!)
Determine What’s “Fear” and What’s Real and What’s Being “Taught”
Every child, every teen, is different, and it’s been my observation that the vast majority of teens today can and do choose, on their own, to block online creepers and inappropriate content all by themselves, for which they should be commended. It bears mentioning too, that as parents, we hear warning bells sounding from many directions about this and that “bad thing” online. Keep in mind that some so-called experts also peddle in fear in order to sell their products to worried and afraid parents. In most instances, however, kids are actually doing very well online and navigating the risks just fine.
And consider this thought on the “ban and block approach” to Internet Safety: Even as I advocate that parents need to remain vigilant and use blocking software when necessary, it’s worth bearing in mind that when doing so, we frequently miss the opportunity to teach our children anything. When parental control software programs block various sites it deems dangerous or risky (blacklisting) our children just don’t see them, hopefully. And while I am not suggesting that we expose our children in a willy-nilly manner to risky online content, allowing them to free-roam the Internet knowing that only approved and appropriate sites will be visible (whitelisting) to them, it teaches them nothing because they have not been given the chance to choose one of content over the other. So this is where you (can) come in as the parent and bring with you the teachable moment.
First, Identify Your Concerns and Issues
First, get clear on just where your concerns are. Then do your homework and gather facts such as known issues with particular sites, programs, games, social media or apps that you are concerned about. Determine the following before initiating the family discussion:
- Are you mainly concerned about the total time your child spends online?
- Is the issue one of reduced family interaction because some many in the house, including parents, are online while at home so much?
- Are you mainly worried about social media sites, chats, online gaming? it helps to narrow your focus.
- Is visiting porn sites an issue?
- Is unauthorized online shopping an issue?
- Or, are you mainly concerned about the content and language that your child uses to communicate with peers online?
I sometimes find that when parents first raise the concerns they have with me about their family’s use of the Internet, that they haven’t really identified where the real issues are. Getting clear on what the main issue(s) are will help the family discussion to go more smoothly.
Begin by listening openly to the how’s and why’s of your child’s use of online media. As a parent, you may have an end-game in mind from the get-go, but it pays to hear your child’s side of it too. Be sure to lay out what your concerns are, and make sure that you’re not quick to condemn a particular app or service simply because you don’t understand it. (Ouch! But that’s why you’re reading this article on Protecting Children Online, right?)
Factors That Help Family Discussions Succeed
- Aim to encourage everyone in the family to participate.
- Try and keep the format light-hearted.
- Families that hold discussions on a regular basis usually work more smoothly.
- Try not to let one family member dominate the discussion.
- Write down what you’ve agreed to.
- Review the agreement in two weeks.
Wishing you and your family the very best. Let me know if I can be helpful beyond what I’ve shared here.