In the digital age parents face challenges that no earlier generations faced. Digital media has been so helpful to us, absolutely essential to our modern lives, and, seemingly benign. But parents who are struggling to manage tech use in their families know just how difficult the task is.
So, why bother?
Because there are challenges that children must experience and master in order for their development to be normal and healthy. If they do not master these tasks, their whole future is likely to be negatively impacted. Starting from birth they need loving attention, consistent boundaries, contact with nature, lots of movement, and opportunity to interact socially.
What do you think happens if children and their care-givers are interacting with digital devices rather than with one another and the environment? Think about a nursing mother who loves her child but uses nursing time as an opportunity to check her Facebook page on her smart phone. No eye contact, because she’s not looking at her baby, means that this first, crucial opportunity to bond is not going well, potentially leading to anxiety in the infant.
What happens if an elementary-age child in first grade, say, spends all her/his spare time playing video games instead of playing with other kids at games that aren’t digital? Can you see how his or her social skills might be detrimentally impacted, leading to social anxiety and social avoidance?
These are just a few examples of the many ways that digital media can hijack a child’s development.
Digital media is not the enemy. If used appropriately, it enhances all of our lives. But knowing what is appropriate for a child’s age and stage of development is important. And getting guidance as you, the parents, figure out how to make the home a digitally healthy environment is essential. There are several excellent books that discuss these matters, among them Reset Your Child’s Brain: a Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time (Victoria Dunckley, 2015); Virtual Child: The Terrifying Truth about What Technology is doing to Our Children (Cris Rowan, 2010), and Video Games and Your Kids: How Parents Stay in Control (Hilarie Cash and Kim McDaniel, 2018).
And, if your family needs professional help, you can find that help here, with the therapists who are trained by IITAP.
In today’s world, kids are online almost constantly, potentially exposed to all sorts of inappropriate content and contacts. One relatively effective way to protect them is to install “parental control” software on their devices. DO NOT DO THIS WITHOUT TELLING THEM. Your kids will realize you’ve done it, and your unilateral decision will create a huge resentment. As such, it is best to tell kids in advance that you are going to install protective software – not because you want to spy on them, but because you want to protect them. You might also explain that as long as they aren’t trying to access inappropriate content or talk to someone who might be dangerous, the software does nothing at all. Sometimes you can get kids “on board” by giving them input when selecting the level of filtering/blocking and accountability/parental notification. Usually, when kids feel they’ve had a say in the matter, protective measures are much better received. When shopping for protective software, you should consider the following:
Customizable Filtering and Blocking. Nearly all protective software products have preset filtering levels – ranging from levels appropriate for young children to young adults. The better ones offer customizable filtering, with blacklisting of specific sites/apps that would otherwise be
allowed and whitelisting of specific sites/apps that would otherwise be blocked. Secondary Filtering and Blocking Features. In addition to website filtering and blocking, most products offer several secondary features, including:
- Online search filtering and blocking
- App blocking
- Social media blocking
- Instant message/chat blocking
- File transfer blocking (preventing the sending and/or receiving of pictures, videos, and other large data files)
- Video game filtering
- Profanity blocking
Recording and Reporting (Accountability) Features. Ideally, protective software products monitor your child’s online activity and provide you with usage reports (either regularly scheduled or on demand), along with real-time alerts if/when your child uses (or attempts to use) his or her digital device in a prohibited way. Recording and reporting features may include:
- Websites visited
- Online searches
- Social networking
- Usernames and passwords
- Screenshot playback
Ease of Use
The software should be easy to install and to customize. Ideally, you should be able to globally configure the software, establishing settings on all of your kids’ devices simultaneously instead of dealing with each machine individually. The best products offer free tech support via email, phone, and even live chat. Compatibility. Not all products work on every digital device. In fact, many are quite limited (and therefore not recommended for kids, who usually have a wide array of devices on which they can access the Internet and/or interact with others). It is important to make sure a product works on all of your children’s device(s) before you purchase it. It is also important to see how many devices the license covers. Ideally, you want to cover all of your children’s digital equipment with only one license. Generally speaking, Net Nanny is the most useful product for protecting kids. It’s relatively affordable, usable on pretty much any device, and it works. (There are sectarian solutions for people seeking them, such as Guard Your Eyes for Jews and Covenant Eyes for Christians.) It is important to note that no parental control software is infallible. The simple truth is most kids can find a way around even the best of these products if they really want to. As such, these products should not be looked at as enforcers of your will. Instead, they should be considered tools of effective parenting, best used in conjunction with an ongoing series of honest, open-minded, nonjudgmental conversations about the healthy use of digital technology.