Childhood is nothing like what we experienced when we were growing up, fellow Boomers. When I was a kid the only trouble we could really get into was with drugs, alcohol and — for boys way more socially advanced than I was — girls. Nowadays the online world has opened up a Pandora’s Box of potential trouble spots, a world that’s almost impossible for parents to supervise, yet one that children can all too easily get into trouble on, whether it’s cyberbullying, sharing personal information with scammers or making friends with creeps and weirdos who definitely do NOT belong in my children’s life.
I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about this because I’m perpetually online and because I’m just starting a long, long road of having teens in the house with computer gear: my oldest is 15 and I have an 11yo and a 7yo. This means I’m going to be dealing with teens for a scary long time. Teens with wifi. Yikes.
The first thing that I did was establish rules and regulations for electronics use in my house. At their Mom’s house, it’s out of my control and I know the rules there are different. Nothing I can do about that, though, so I just focus on my world.
The first rule is that we have zero media during the school week. No TV, no computer usage, nothing. For the teen, she can use her cellphone to stay in touch with her friends, and she can use the computer for homework, but anything additional, like Facebook, is capped at one hour/day and cannot happen after 9pm. For the younger ones, they’re offline.
Second rule: I have a copy of all passwords. No questions, no negotiation. If I choose, I have the right to log in to their Gmail or Facebook accounts and poke about. I won’t violate their privacy, won’t post or otherwise leave any footprints, but I insist on being able to occasionally check up on their digital lives.
Only Real Friends are Facebook Friends. This is the toughest one to enforce because my teen daughter’s life encompasses more than our shared experiences so when she friends someone on Facebook who is a friend of her Mom’s, for example, it means I don’t know who she is. Our solution is to once every 2-3 months sit down and go through all her Facebook friends together. I ask “who is this?” and if she doesn’t have a good answer — and “he’s Heather’s boyfriend’s brother in Florida” isn’t a good answer — then we unfriend him.
We also have an electronics curfew in my house. At 9pm all electronic devices, computers, phones, ipods, whatever, are left on the kitchen counter and are off limits until the following morning. I know that’s not the same at Mom’s house because I’ve seen my daughter post on Facebook at 11pm or 11.30pm at night. Upsetting, but what can ya do?
Finally, the last rule is one I learned from my friends who work in the online safety space: no computers in the bedroom. Whether she’s doing homework or just playing on Facebook, all computers must be used in common, shared space. Apparently it’s the teens who are huddled on their beds IM’ing away with their new, unknown but oh-so-sympathetic friends who are at the greatest risk of connecting with creeps and weirdos.
There are other things I could be doing to help keep my kids safe in the digital world, but that’s our start at a safe container for electronics and Internet use. What are your house rules with your children?
Dave Taylor has been online since he was just past his own teen years and blogs about parenting and being a single dad at GoFatherhood.com.