Children and Social Media (and The Internet in general)

Andy Affleck in a TidBits article asks When Should We Introduce Social Media to Kids? which is something that I can see is going to be an issue for us soon. He draws an interesting analogy between parenting in the real world, and on line.

When our children go out into the real world at this age, they never do so alone. We parents accompany them. I go with my son when he needs to go to the store. I take him to his play dates. I take him to his scouting and karate events. Or he goes with my wife or another parent. Pre-teens are almost never left alone without adult supervision, to keep them safe and to ensure nothing bad happens. Kids at this age are not good at seeing consequences to their actions, and they do many ill-considered things.

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Parents do all these things in the real world, but at the same time many tell their children that they cannot go online. They prohibit all things online because they are scared of the bullying and the predators out there. And they do this even though online predation is a vastly overblown worry and research has shown that bullying is still more an offline problem than an online one.

[snip]

But all of these knee-jerk reactions assume that we are going to hand over the computer and walk away.

Instead, we should start to walk our kids into this online world just as we walk them into the real world. Let them get online but supervise them. Allow them to start exploring and learning how the online world works but stay with them on the journey until they can go alone, the same way we already do this in the real world. (At the same time, we need to recognize how immersive and compelling this online world can be and set sensible limits. Children should still run outside and play with real toys, not spend all of their time online with virtual friends.)

Which I think is a very good view.

Our current approach (with two boys, 9 and 7) is as follows:

  • Computers are always in family areas. No computers in bedrooms etc.! This is probably the most important thing as it keeps computer use in the family context.
  • Computer use is policed and restricted. They have to ask, time is limited, and they are often restricted to “Only Education City” etc. rather than just paying games all the time. This is somewhat similar to our attitude to TV which is also rationed, with Cartoons more rationed than anything factual etc.
  • We haven’t bothered with Parental Controls on their Mac accounts, they are a little bit on the geeky side and we seemed to spend all our time giving them exceptions.
  • We have implemented DNS-based Parental Controls using OpenDNS. This is mainly just as a backstop just in case, most of the time we know what they are doing.
  • They generally ask if they can Google, Wikipedia YouTube etc, although they can have free access to the Child Friendly Wikipedia clone.
  • They have EMail accounts on our Google Apps for Domains setup, and whilst we don’t restrict their email they only really use it with our help.
  • Talking about what they see and do is important. They are never told off, more guided and explained – we want to know what they are exposed to.
  • They have iPod Touches, but they don’t know the passwords for their iTunes accounts. This is partly so we can police what they download, and partly so we can deduct it from their pocket money 🙂
  • The other machines in the house (Desktops and portable devices) all have passwords on. Guessing and shoulder-surfing passwords is not allowed!

This is working OK so far, although I am sure we will encounter challenges as they get older and test the boundaries. I also suspect at some point they will apply considerable effort to overcoming our restrictions, and can only hope my technical skills rise to the challenge when the time comes!

One question I do wonder about… at what age do they have an expectation of privacy? I guess this is also found in their physical world too. At the moment I can see use requiring that we know all their passwords until they are 16 or 18, although I don’t know at what age we should stop reading their email.

Then there’s the Facebook question, some of their friends have Facebook accounts already which feels quite wrong really. Whatever the social media network of choice I can see us expecting to be their “Friend” on Facebook etc. just to keep an eye on what is going on, but at what age should we give this up? There’s probably a gap from about 18 to 30 where they would prefer Mum & Dad not to know what goes on in their social circle! And at what age do we need to stop them being our Facebook friend so they don’t see what we get up to?!

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