Parenting in a digital age

In reviewing the daily news stream it is impossible to miss the escalating frequency of incidents coming out of schools all across the country which relate directly to social media, texting, or apps used by kids.

Sexting, cyber-bullying, sextortion, and intimidation seem to be on the rise. Sexting, in particular, seems to be proliferating and is now surpassing cyber-bulling in frequency and intensity.

Consequences for online misbehavior of children can range from embarrassment or shame up to criminal prosecution. Depending on which state you live in, consequences can vary widely. It seems schools and parents struggle to grapple with the realities of a general lack of effective policies, rules, or legislation to address these problems head on.

Children now start using cell phones as young as six or seven with few restrictions or parental filters in place. The power of modern technology creates opportunities for misuse and inappropriate behavior. Left unchecked, kids can easily be lured into trouble. Children don’t fully understand the consequences or permanency of poor judgment. Sexting in particular, has far reaching consequences that can last a lifetime; pictures, once posted to the internet, may remain there forever.

In putting this very overwhelming problem into perspective, we must delve into our own past and look at the evolution of computers, cell phones, and the internet.

The internet itself started to come on line in the early 1990s, less than 25 years ago. Since then, the rapid pace of technological development in the digital world has been consistent with “Moore’s law” by doubling its capabilities roughly every 18 months.

Today’s modern smart phone is an incredibly powerful device, capable of processing more data than a room full of computers processed 20 years ago. It is widely believed that technology is now outpacing the person using it. In short, our portable devices have more features than we know how to use.

The knowledge gap between children and adults is also widening. This due to many factors, but mostly because kids simply absorb more data quicker than adults do.

This fact is scientifically proven and tested. Parents average several years behind their children in terms of technological skill and knowledge. It is not uncommon, for example, to see a three or four year old child pick up a tablet and begin swiping at the screen. Teenagers flip through apps and process thousands of text messages at a torrid, almost unfathomable rate. The mobile devices of today have become a critical and vital component of every teenager’s life.

We have also learned that simply trusting our children to know and use proper cyber-etiquette is no longer sufficient, the consequences are too great.

Due to immature impulsivity, cyber scandals can spread rapidly, making containment by officials extremely challenging. Recent incidents and research has also shown us that prevention is the key to managing these problems before they even begin.

Prevention requires a three pronged approach: education, monitoring, and confrontation. Parents need to speak openly and clearly to their children about the risks posed in the digital community. They also need to utilise modern tools to monitor their kid’s cyber-presence, and inappropriate behavior needs to be confronted swiftly and firmly by parents and other officials alike.

The good news is that modern technology is also providing new tools for parents to be able to monitor their kid’s cyber-behavior and to make more effective parenting decisions. Parents really need to take an active role in monitoring, and restricting when appropriate, their child’s digital activity. They need to then follow up with conversation about what they discover about their children and their use of technology. Software such as My Mobile Watchdog now makes this easy.

Parents should follow several steps to ensure their kids are protected:

  • Speak openly and clearly with your children about proper electronics use and abuse. Talk about consequences. Together, look up what consequences in your area can be for sexting or cyber-bullying. Ask your child if they have seen any misconduct. Research shows that about 71 per cent of kids know someone who has been affected by cyber-bullying or sexting.
  • Utilise some form of monitoring software for your child’s mobile device. Make sure you use features such as:
    • Monitoring text messages and multimedia messages(picture messages)
    • Being notified when your child adds a new contact or an unknown contact is attempting communication with your child.
    • Approve or disapprove of contacts.
    • Know what apps your kids are using. Block the use of apps you disapprove of.
    • Use a time blocking feature to lock your child’s phone during periods like school or sleep.
    • Monitoring or blocking internet use.
    • Regularly reviewing pictures and movies.
    • Not allowing your child to have open access purchase or download apps without parental permission. All major cell phone platforms offer parental authorisation tools for purchasing.
  • Do not let your child take a computer, tablet, or cell phone into their bedroom at night. Research has shown that many kids use their electronic devices for hours each night in their bedrooms without parental knowledge or consent. Have a family “docking station” where each device has a home. Keep the docking station in a common area such as the living room.
  • Know your child’s digital “friends”. Ask your kids to show you their accounts on apps such as Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, Instagram, Kik, SnapChat, Vine, WhatsApp, ooVoo, Tumbler, Yik Yak and others. A quality cell phone monitoring app will allow you to block apps you do not want your child to access.
  • Ask questions, if you don’t know how the apps work, ask. Ask about who they “follow” and who follows them. If they won’t show you or are evasive, it is a sign of potential trouble. Take action by restricting apps, devices, or times they are being used.
  • Ask for, and keep a list of your child’s passwords. Have them list for you everything: login passwords of computers, PIN #s for cell phones, and any passwords and usernames used on any website or app where they have to login. When you have time, test them all. If your child provided you with faulty or incorrect information it is another sign you need to take time to speak with your kids. Listen to them as well, then take action. Remember to ask questions.

Digital parenting is challenging and difficult at first, but if these techniques lead to conversations with your children then we are heading in the right direction.

An unfortunate side effect of more technology is more isolation and less family time. Just like any other parenting situation, digital parenting requires patience and understanding.

By being proactive and using prevention, we’ll have fewer serious incidents to react to, happier kids, and much safer communities.

Bob Lotter is the CEO and Founder of My Mobile Watchdog Inc, which educates parents and teachers on the realities of the modern, digital world and helps parents make informed decisions to keep kids safe online.