Why talk about Internet use with your preschooler?
Preschoolers are venturing out of the safety of the home and exploring the “big world”. Today this means both the physical world and the virtual world, whether it be a fictional urban street on TV or an online kids club. Preschoolers will use every trick in the book to experience these worlds—including picking up anything that isn’t nailed down and coloring on any surface that is available to them. This kind of exploration is part of their learning, but they are too young to know what’s safe and what’s not.
What is your role?
The parent’s role is to encourage and support their preschooler’s explorations, while keeping them safe and healthy. This can range from discouraging their touching of dangerous objects to guiding them toward developmentally consistent learning experiences. You can do this by seeing those worlds from your child’s perspective and applying knowledge of their developmental capabilities and needs to each situation.
- Preschoolers don’t need to go online. Many parents believe that their children need to explore digital media in order to be ready to compete. But developmental science shows that kids are often digitally savvy and able to learn what they need from this environment in a matter of minutes rather than years. So kids of this age should only go online if there are content and activities there that are uniquely optimal for their learning and development at this stage, and that cater to their limited attention spans.
- Childproof your Internet. You childproof your home by getting down on your hands and knees and looking at the physical world from a child’s point of view. Do the same with the virtual world of the Internet. An online equivalent of an uncovered socket might be images that scare or confuse them, so think about how to “cover” exposed dangers by making them inaccessible. Most importantly, make it easy to access websites that are designed to optimize their experiences and learning at their current developmental stage—just as you put building blocks on the lowest shelf so your preschooler doesn’t have to teeter on a chair to reach them.
- Take them to sites that will interest them. Look for things that preschoolers like, such as pictures of wildlife and audio of the sounds they make. Any Internet time with preschoolers should be geared toward them, not toward an older sibling or adult who wants to be entertained while they “watch along” with the preschooler.
- Use the Internet to stimulate your preschooler’s imagination. When their content is designed to work with how preschoolers learn, media can support language development and other developmental tasks.
What can you say?
- “Just like we go to the playground together, we go online together.” Make sure that your preschooler goes online only with you, or a trusted caregiver—that allows you to guide what he is exposed to and, even more importantly, for you to model controlled, thoughtful media use.
- “Let’s play this game together. After that, we’ll make a snack.” Show your preschooler that you use the Internet for a specific purpose and that, when you’re done with that activity, it’s time to move on to something else.
- “What do you see?” When using media with your preschooler, observe how she engages with it. Ask her questions about what she sees and thinks so she can practice thinking critically about it.
Why talk about Internet use with your school-age child?
School-age children are establishing their identities as individuals and becoming socialized with their peers. They are venturing into the world without a parent by their side; personal roles need to be explored and relationships created. Many school-age children are using the internet for the first time, and they need as much guidance in growing up online as offline. While schools may teach them the mechanics of using this powerful information tool to communicate with teachers, research subjects of interest, or visit specific websites as part of their homework, it is often up to parents to help school-age kids develop the skills to be responsible online citizens.
What is your role?
You can support and encourage school-aged children in their independent learning by helping them navigate new situations and environments and by providing them with a safe, supportive place for them to return. As they begin to use the internet on their own, you can model focused and safe use, provide guidelines and expectations for navigating it safely and effectively, and provide an open avenue of communication and support if they venture into content for which they aren’t ready.
- Have a shared family computer located in a public space. This allows you to supervise school-age kids’ online time without hovering. You can help enforce previously agreed-upon time limits, help her navigate the web, and give her a chance to teach you what she has learned. It also means that you are always present while she is online to guide her if she discovers something troubling or problematic.
- The length of an online session should match his natural attention span. Notice how long your school-age child tends to focus on activities – You want her to have many kinds of experiences, so switch activities frequently, mixing up strenuous physical activity, reading, and free play.
- Use technological controls thoughtfully to help avoid accidental exposure to content for which they aren’t ready. These tools can search and filter certain types of information. However, no tool is perfect, and there is no control that a determined child can’t get around. The best way to prevent exposure is to be present with school-age kids when they use the internet, and to teach them how to safely navigate the web on their own.
- When a child sees something you’d prefer she didn’t see, help her process it . Ask how she feels (“How does that make you feel?”), validate what she says (“Yes, that is confusing”), and let her know that she is safe (“I know that was scary, but I’m glad you told me about it. Here’s how we can stay away from things like that.”). Approaching it in this way will teach your child to take care of herself online and encourage her to come to you when she sees something confusing or scary.
What can you say?
- “What is the internet good at?” Just as a hammer is a tool that’s good for driving nails but shouldn’t be used for hitting others, the internet is a tool that’s great for finding information and connecting—but it shouldn’t be used to harm. Brainstorm with your child about how to use the internet, discuss her ideas of what may be good for her and for others, and together develop specific strategies to use the Internet effectively.
- “How will you use your time today?” One way to ensure a balanced diet of activities is to build your child’s day by first including the most important activities—like homework, physical activity, a family meal, and adequate sleep. Once those are accounted for, see whether there is time left over for entertainment screen media, including TV and video games as well as internet. When there is, you can help your child choose from among age-optimal choices, and set her expectations for when she’ll need to move on to another activity (e.g., “You can watch one episode of your show, and then it will be time to play outside”).
- “What do you think of this? How does it make you feel?” Deconstruct the experience with her. If on a site advertising a violent video game, what’s going on there? What do you think happens if you get hit by a bullet? Ground virtual experiences in reality. Hear from her how she feels about it, then offer your perspective, not a lecture. Seek out resources on how to do this.
- “Who made this? Why do you think they made it? ” Help your child to understand that media are created by someone for a certain reason. Thus, she should know that it belongs to whoever created it and that it may or may not be trustworthy. Thus, if she chooses to share it with others or use it for school work, it’s important to say who made it. Even if it is unclear who created it, to copy rather than create work is dishonest and denies them a chance to learn.
- “Respect yourself and others.” The internet is part of the world in which school-age children are learning to navigate and take care of themselves and others. Teach her that no personal information of any kind should be shared with anyone online, that she cannot really know with whom she may be communicating, and that she should never post any text or images without your knowledge. Make it clear that her privilege of using the Internet is dependent on never saying threatening or hurtful things to or about others, which can have serious outcomes, from personal harm to legal consequences.
Why talk about internet use with your tween?
Unlike preschoolers and school–age kids, who look to their parents as primary sources of influence, tweens are in the process of shifting their attention from parents to peers. They aspire to grow up fast—to be teenagers—so they often start pushing boundaries. They need help understanding which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t, whether offline or online. They need boundaries set and expectations of increased personal responsibility made clear, since they want to spend a lot of time online, and they want to spend it alone.
What is your role?
First, continue to be an active parent in the media domain—it is just another part of the world in which you’re raising your kids. And even though your tween probably knows more than you do about navigating technology, the part of his brain that controls impulses and understands future consequences isn’t developed yet. That means that a big part of your job is to provide that structure and guidance for them.
You do that partly by figuring out the kinds of freedom for which your tween is ready. Sometimes they need the chance to take risks and fail. In other cases, they are not developmentally ready to make responsible decisions, or the stakes are too high for the learning to be worth the risk. The challenge is to know which is which.
- When he sees something you’d prefer he didn’t see, help him process it. Make it clear that you are a safe resource to go to if he gets in trouble online. If he makes a misstep, focus on helping him navigate it rather than punishing him—and help him determine how to prevent it from happening again.
- Abide by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Many online social media websites and accounts are open to users who are 13 or older. Make sure that this rule is enforced in your household. Once your child is ready for an account, set it up with her and let her know that you will be checking in on the account from time to time in order to monitor her safety.
- Keep computers in public spaces. Although your tween will likely push for time alone online, he may or may not be ready for the responsibility yet. Until he is, keep the computer in a public area. When he reaches the point where you’d let him go to a party at a house you don’t know—where you trust him to behave in ways that keep him safe and sane without your immediate guidance—then consider integrating private Internet time into his life.
What can you say?
- “What’s your favorite game? Will you teach me how to play it?” Tweens know more about the internet than you do. Embrace the shift, and use it as a way to connect with them. Have them teach you about favorite social media sites, games they play, websites they like, etc. This lets them demonstrate mastery, which they’ll love, and will help show that you respect what’s important to them in a world you know less about. This trust will help stand you in good stead into the teen years.
- “What are your friends from school doing online? Can you tell me about that?” If it feels like your tween will have trouble answering direct questions about himself, start out at arm’s length by asking about his friends or classmates. Giving him a way to talk about what’s happening without directly relating it to himself may make those conversations easier to have.
- “Have you noticed kids saying things to each other online that aren’t nice? Do you know anyone who has experienced that? Why do you think kids do that? How do you think you would handle that?” Asking these questions can help open conversation about difficult topics. Make a point of listening to his responses. This will help build a relationship where he can tell you what scares him, what he doesn’t know how to manage, or where he needs an adult to intervene.
Why talk about internet use with your teen?
Teens are separating from their parents, figuring out who they are, and asserting their individuality. In the media realm, as in other realms, this is when they move from identifying as members of a group (“We all watch The Simpsons”) to striking out on their own (“I created my own blog about baseball”). The increasing freedom and privacy is exciting and opens new possibilities for both learning and harm.
What is your role?
Even though they look like adults and demand to be treated as adults, teens aren’t yet adults. Their brains are still developing the ability to understand the effects of their actions and to connect the present to the future. That’s why they still need a caring adult’s help to make choices and manage their behavior. Your role is to support your teen’s growing independence in ways that are both affirming and protective.
- To support involvement in other activities, work with them on balancing all the things that are important to them. Help them to prioritize and manage their time, making sure that a healthy amount of sleep, a family meal, and academic and family obligations come first.
- Slowly increase your teen’s freedom to decide how to use the internet. She will push for it. Remember to move slowly, though—she needs to practice using the internet in safe, healthful ways before she’s proven herself ready to be on her own in that realm, just as she does when learning to drive a car.
- Keep the channels of communication open. Ask questions that your teen can answer. Sometimes, that will mean asking questions about other teens, or about things you’ve both seen in the media (“I keep hearing about sexting—what do you know about that? Can you tell me about it?”). Appeal to her mastery and expertise.
- Emphasize that the web is not private by keeping computers in public spaces. Your teen will want to go online in private. Let her show that she can monitor her time and activities online, and slowly give her more privacy as she proves herself.
What can you say?
When talking with teens, listen as much as possible. They have ideas of what they’d like and how it could work. Support them in trying things, and offer support when what they try doesn’t work. Be there to help guide them through that process.
- “I know you have a lot of things you want to do each day. What ideas do you have for how you can fit everything in? If you can’t fit everything, what’s most important to you?” Work together to determine what kind of support she wants from you in planning her time. Would it be helpful for you to set a timer so she stops gaming at a certain time? Should her cell phone be charged in your room at night so texts don’t wake her up? Work on that plan together.
- “It seems like you’d like to make these decisions on your own. I want to make sure you’re safe. How can we give you some freedom and me some peace of mind?” Brainstorm with her how she can show you that she is ready for more responsibility—and agree on how you will handle it if something happens that demonstrates that she isn’t ready for that responsibility yet.
- “Have you ever seen someone post something that backfired? Will you tell me about that? How do you think that person should have handled it?” Talking about topics like this in relation to other people, rather than directly about themselves, can help make it easier for teens to ask questions and share information.
- “When you post online, remember that it is never truly ‘private’ as it may be shared with unintended third parties—such as your teachers, the person you’re dating, or even a grandparent.” Talk about the fact that, once they’re posted, it’s hard to take images down. Encourage them to use the “do I want grandma to see this?” test before posting online.