The internet and social media are excellent tools for research, entertainment, and connection. It is likely that your tween or teen already has a good deal of online experience under her belt, for better or worse. You probably feel like you are continually playing catch up. How do you navigate the issues of internet safety, social media culture, and screen time without sacrificing attachment and connection with your tween or teen?
We’ve created this resource guide to give you a starting point for learning about the dangers of the internet and social media activity. Again, your tweens and teens probably already know far more than you do about the newest apps, technology, and how to work around parents who are trying to keep up. This guide can give you excellent open doors to start conversations with your kids about what you are learning. You can be a listening ear for that which concerns or troubles them and a mindful presence that helps them navigate and find solutions that work for them.
Educate Yourself about the Dangers of the Internet and Social Media
If you haven’t done so already, catch yourself up by researching the risks of extensive screen time on the developing brain. There are plenty of reputable resources from which to glean your information. A few that might be helpful include:
- KidsHealth.org – from The Nemours Foundation
- CPYU’s Digital Kids’ Initiative – from the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (a faith-based organization)
- Social Media Safety – from Child Welfare Information Gateway
- Protect Young Eyes – resource site committed to safer digital experiences
An excellent conversation starter on what you learn might go like this with your tween or teen:
I read today that being on my phone too close to bedtime stimulates my brain instead of relaxing it. I wonder if that’s why I sleep so fitfully when I first fall asleep? Does that happen to you?
You can “toss” that conversational ball and let your child either toss it back (for further conversation) or drop it (and you’ve planted the seed for thought).
Craft a Family Internet Safety Plan
Apply what you’ve learned about the internet and social media’s risks and benefits to create some basic family rules. However, remember, if you’ve adopted an older child, he may have had little to no supervision in internet safety or safe social media practices. Rules might feel oppressive or unnecessary to him at the start. If that is the case, we recommend that you start slowly and collaboratively with your tween or teen.
Your focus should be on building trust and helping them feel safe in your care in your early days together. Laying down hardline rules might keep them off the internet while they are in the kitchen with you. But it won’t teach them how to conduct themselves safely when they sneak online time at a friend’s or under the covers after you’ve fallen asleep.
The goal of establishing boundaries for your family’s internet use is first to protect your kids. Second, you want to teach your kids to navigate and choose wisely to protect themselves.
Across most internet safety resources, you will find several common guidelines or themes for developing your family’s internet and social media safety plan:
1. Keep the computers out of the bedrooms.
This is a good general rule, but in many adopted and foster families, it’s not an absolute, again depending upon when your child came home and what his experience was before that. If your tween or teen comes to you and already owns a device or two, work out reasonable compromises together.
Of course, in our current culture of virtual or hybrid learning, concessions likely will have to be made here, too. Talk out what electronics can be used in their bedrooms and when.
2. Enforce the rules consistently and fairly.
Remember that the goal isn’t just their safety but also growing their skills to choose wisely to keep themselves safe. So be willing to give them some voice and choice in these conversations about rules and consequences.
3. Limit the amount of screen time.
Engage your tween or teen in conversations about how much time they think is reasonable and explain your limits. Seek a middle ground to start and be flexible on the details, primarily if your child is not used to having these parameters.
Be willing to check-in and re-visit this conversation as you see your tween or teen succeeding or struggling. Keep an “open-door policy” with them, considering the circumstances we are currently facing, like virtual school and social distancing. They might have no other social outlet – or limited opportunities for social interaction – so craft your limits but listen to your tween or teen’s input.
4. Keep up with social media trends.
Dig into the current apps, trends, and social media etiquette. It all changes very quickly, but you can ask your tweens and teens to help you learn. This time together can have the bonus of forging connections and helping you get into her world.
There will likely be many teachable moments that crop up but don’t feel like you have to maximize each one every time. Space the opportunities out and toss that “conversational ball” occasionally to see if the child is receptive to talking more.
5. Keep the conversation open.
Ask your tween or teen about what apps he uses, why he enjoys them, and how he feels interacting online. Take his thoughts and feelings seriously – the age of the internet and social media is his reality. He needs to know you are there for him without judgment.
When he does share, it’s essential that you not over-react or panic. Stay calm and ask questions rather than bringing your anger or frustration to the conversation. You want to craft an open and safe space for your kids to share with you. Being an intentional listener will encourage them to share without fear of judgment or repercussion.
6. Teach your tweens and teens to trust their guts.
Remember, the goal isn’t just to keep our kids safe. It’s to equip them to keep themselves safe. Please encourage them to speak candidly about what they see and why specific interactions feel uncomfortable. Then believe them. Hold your discomfort to be dealt with later. Reinforce their feelings by assuring them that you might feel uncomfortable too.
7. Invest in a robust internet safety monitor.
Several safety tools on the market will block or at least slow your tweens’ or teens’ attempts to access inappropriate sites. These apps offer a wide range of services, like blocking, requiring passcodes for specific apps and sites, and setting timers for internet use.
Here are a few popular parental monitors:
Consumer Advocate’s 10 Best Parental Control Apps of 2020 has more information on all of these monitors and more.
Read more about developing your family’s internet and social media safety plans at the following sites:
- The Fatherly Guide to Keeping Kids Safe Online
- 6 Ways to Keep Your Kids Safe Online
- Teaching Kids to Be Smart About Social Media
- How to Connect with Your Teen about Smart & Safe Media Use
Be Firm but Flexible
Be clear with your adopted and foster tweens and teens about what you expect of him and his online behavior. Spell out the consequences you will enforce when he tries to get around your rules and safety guidelines. Offer grace for the learning curve, particularly if he has not benefited from loving, safe boundaries surrounding him previously.
You’ll notice we said “when” and not “if” he tries to get around the rules. Try to remember that experimenting, pushing boundaries, and challenging authority are typical tween and teen development milestones. These behaviors are necessary for building intelligence and for gaining life experience as they prepare for adulthood.
We get it – it feels riskier now with the whole world right in the palm of their hands. Remember that you aren’t alone in this struggle. There is a ton of support out there to help you learn and grow with your kids while you protect them and teach them to defend themselves.
Image Credits: Jhaymesisviphotography; Garry Knight; B Hartford J Strong; Luke Hayfield