Sometimes it feels like I only talk about the bad part of technology and screens.
I want to pause and reflect on the amazing times we’re living in. We can 3D bioprint human body parts like ears and eyes. We can connect with friends regardless of where they live in the world and play a game or video chat. We can create a music playlist without paying for it, put in our wireless earbuds and jam out. We can post a photo on social media and get immediate feedback. We can ask google for anything. We can learn how to do home repairs from YouTube.
I’m so grateful for the internet. Isn’t it amazing?
And… (Here comes the bad part)
The digital world is relatively new still and there are few system-wide restrictions on how kids can access it. Just like you don’t want your child wandering down dark alleys alone, you don’t want your child stumbling upon inappropriate internet content.
Above all, as parents it’s our responsibility for providing the guard rails for navigating the world, both in real life and in the digital world.
I have identified five actions to help keep kids connected AND safe. When used together, the Five Circles make a significant Safety Zone for your kids in the center.
The first pillar is about all parents and caregivers getting on the same page. This could include parenting partners, grandparents, nannies, babysitters–anyone who sees your child regularly.
You’ll schedule time without the kids to talk about your own childhood. Did you have a digital crisis in your family of origin? What does it mean to provide guard rails online for you? What boundaries are appropriate online? What are the dreams you have for you child and the fears you avoid talking about?
Really listen to each other. Create a plan that incorporates both of your beliefs and thoughts and agree to back each other up. Parenting is much more effective when you’re on the same page.
Define your family values and be prepared to negotiate as kids get older and their needs change.
Having these discussions in advance provides a united front when your child asks. If you’re a single parent, consistency is equally important. In addition, find another person you respect that you can bounce ideas off of as an adviser.
One of the most stressful situations in ALIGN is when parents breakup and do not share similar beliefs around technology. If this is your situation, it’s important to have your boundaries around technology in place at your house. Keep talking about why online safety is important for your child.
The second pillar is about connecting with your child.
Sit next to them as they are on their screens and ask questions. Open, non-judgmental questions. Let them be the experts! How do you use that app? What is it for? What do you like about it or wish was different? What apps do you hate? Who do you follow and why? Have you seen anyone struggle with screen addiction?
Let your child know that there will never be a time or situation that you won’t love them through. There’s nothing they could do that you wouldn’t want to help them through. You are there for them. Period. If they feel lost or embarrassed or ashamed, they can still count on you.
This worksheet will help you talk through the apps your older kids might be using and rate them. Download my Connect Sheet here: it’s a list of questions and a scoreboard for what’s working and what’s not.
Next, get that internet filtered! No one needs to see the unfiltered internet. No one. Not you and not me. Certainly not our kids.
And here’s when it starts–it’s a lot earlier than you may think. The first time a parent hands a child their phone, it should be filtered. Think of the times you’ve gone shopping at Costco and seen a toddler with Mama’s phone watching a YouTube video. We’ve all been there, trying to buy a minute of peace, whether it’s Elmo or Peppa Pig. No judgment here. But before that first time you hand your child a screen, you should know there’s a filter on it and the content is appropriate.
There are two tools I want to elaborate on.
The Bark-O-Matic is a free tool to secure apps and devices hooked up to the internet. You’ll get specific instructions on how to enable parental settings and lock down apps. It’s amazing!
My family uses Circle by Disney for limiting and filtering the internet. Circle is a one-time purchase for your home’s wi-fi network plus a subscription for when kids are out and about, using data plans. You can have the magical ability to pause the internet! And control screen time! And set bedtimes! And set limits by app!
The fourth pillar is about setting limits online. What’s the appropriate balance for spending time online and in the “real world”? Every family is different.
The average adult unlocks their phone 80 times a day.
Have you ever picked up your phone, popped into Facebook and 30 minutes later, completely forgotten what you intended to do originally? Yea, me too.
It’s easy to spend a lot more time than you intended online. That’s why it’s called the rabbit hole.
And if it’s easy for us adults to lose track of time, what chance do our kids have?
I recommend limiting time online AND turning off notifications and alerts when you need to focus. And when your child needs to focus. Teach them how to turn off distractions.
I use Circle by Disney to do this.
LIMIT is where you decide what you will require from your kids to earn screen time (remember, screens are a privilege not a right). At my house, I require face-to-face civility and chores before screen time. Screen time during the week is one hour a day for my younger kids. I schedule offline time together too.
What is important to you?
Parents can only correct and influence what they can see and know. Until now, that’s been the problem with online behavior–you can’t see it. It’s invisible. The last Circle of Safety is about monitoring your child’s online behavior.
Of course, you could go old school and grab their phone to review every text and every app your child has every night but there are a couple of practical reasons that just won’t work.
- One, you’re decreasing trust and respect and invading privacy, from your child’s perspective.
- Two, it’s just too time-consuming, and that’s with only ONE kid.
- Last, kids get sneaky when they feel too restricted. Just like my horses, they go looking for that hole in the fence and believe me, they can find the weak spots. And there are too many apps willing to help them be sneaky.
Have you all heard of the calculator apps that are really a secret vault for kids to hide apps they’re not supposed to have? Yes. that’s a fact. There are lots of way our children can hide from us if they want to. Parenting your brilliant children is a lot easier if you put up some boundaries (guard rails), give them some freedom in the safety zone and keep checking in.
BARK is an app that I recommend to all parents whose kids have smart phones. It uses artificial intelligence to make sure kids stay safe. They monitor 25+ apps that your child is likely to use for inappropriate text, emojis, abbreviations and photos and send you alerts when necessary.
Now you can see their online behavior and help guide them out of danger. You can correct and influence them, without invading their privacy.
Sign up for BARK here and get 20% off.
I’ll tell you a personal story about how BARK has changed how I parent.
My family of 5 was at the Space Needle for New Years Eve this year. Super fun! Also a lot of pot smoking. The next day my son asked YouTube about marijuana and what it does to a human body. BARK sent me an alert, triggered by my son’s search words, which gave me the ability to talk with him about marijuana and what I know, at exactly the right moment that he needed to hear the information. Without embarrassing him. If YouTube is where my child is going to look for answers, I want to step up and get my two cents in too! Don’t you?
The Safety Zone
Inside the five orange circles is a Safety Zone. When you spend time aligning, connecting, limiting, filtering and monitoring your child will enjoy appropriate freedom online along with safety.
And that’s our goal, right? To provide guard rails while our kids safely explore gaming, the internet and connecting digitally.
Guess where you’ll spend most of your time?
Staying connected with your parenting partners and children requires daily check in’s, flexibility and curiosity. It’s a proactive, intense job that has immense payoffs. You’ll feel supported and united with your partner. You’ll understand what’s important to your child and approach discussions from a win-win perspective.
To be clear, the goal is to overcommunicate and leave nothing to chance. As a reminder, the definition of communicate is “to share or exchange information or ideas”. (Note that “communicate” isn’t about giving speeches and “making” your kids listen. You know that won’t work, right?)
Weekly family meetings provide a structure for regular check in’s as a whole family. Everyone gets compliments and has a voice in the discussion. As a result, the rest of the week gets easier.
In summary, here are the Five Pillars of Success:
- ALIGN Get on the same page as your partner on technology boundaries.
- CONNECT Teach your kids that technology is a tool and screens are a privilege with responsibilities attached. Teach your family values and rules. Have lots of conversations and be curious!
- FILTER Filter their access to internet sites that aren’t appropriate for their ages.
- LIMIT Limit screen time to make time for healthy real life connection and, yes, even boredom.
- MONITOR Monitor behavior to know if inappropriate images/ bullying/ sexting/ bad or dangerous behavior is happening, based on what you’ve already set up as rules in #1 and 2.