Viewpoint: Technology can be both good and bad for kids

“When can in have a cell phone? I need a cell phone! Everyone has one!”

How many of us have fought this battle with our kids? How many of us have given in and handed over a mobile device that gives our children, at the youngest ages, complete access to the world – with all of its lures and dangers, with access to predators and opportunities to bully? Many of us feel helpless when faced with both the youthful demand for technology and our own inability to understand how it works and how it can be used – or misused.

When it comes to making technology-based decisions with children, every parent needs to be smart, make age appropriate choices and be ever-vigilant in order to prevent all of the good technology brings from turning into a family’s nightmare. In recognition of April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, here is a primer of what every parent needs to know:

Smart phones provide a medium for kids to share lewd or inappropriate messages and pictures. These devices are all too often the platforms used to harass and bully others. Facebook, for instance, has been in the cyber-safety spotlight for years (eliciting concerns of bullying, inappropriate posts and messages, etc.). In the last year or so, a new generation of applications (“apps”) has been created that are both appealing and dangerous for children. These apps include features such as “self-destructing” messages, encrypted messages, free text and group messages, and GPS location services to connect you with potential friends and dates close by. Some of the apps used most frequently, as well as the newer ones appearing almost every day, include names such as Facebook, Twitter, Integra, Kindle, Skype, Snapchat, Wickr, Kik, Chatgig, Chatroulette, Oovoo, etc (The list goes on!)

There are three general areas where children get themselves into trouble with their electronic footprints, these include sexting, cyber-bullying, and meeting with strangers they connect with online, and they each represent the cyber-equivalent of taking the wrong turn.

Tips to keep kids safe:

What’s a parent to do?

1. Create ground rules. If you provide the phone, you make the rules. Start when your child is young and set limits and enforce them. If your child breaks the rules, you can impose consequences. If the violation is severe, you can take away the privilege of having the device.

2. Communication. You need to talk openly and honestly with your child about the public nature of any information shared via social media and the Internet. You need to address the ways that information can be compromised and how any person can become a victim. You have to be willing to listen to their concerns and problems. They need to know that you will listen and not just lecture, judge, or criticize.

3. Be app savvy! You can review the apps on your child’s smart phones, tablets, gaming devices, and computers. Your level of review and involvement will depend on the age of the child. Your child should know that you are monitoring his or her activities. And you need to call them on things they do that are not appropriate and use those as teaching moments. Create similar accounts on the same social media sites as your child. Have them “friend”” you so you can not only monitor what they’re doing but what their friends are saying and posting.

4. Parental features or monitoring software: Some devices allow you to adjust application-rating restrictions to prevent the download of adult-oriented apps. Explore the device. If you choose to employ monitoring software you should be honest and up front with your child. Contact your cell phone carrier to determine what monitoring features they offer.

5. Balance trust and accountability: Every parent must find the balance between trust and accountability with their child. We need to teach our children how to use technology responsibly so that they do not get themselves into trouble. Constant monitoring and oversight will likely cause a parent to violate their child’s privacy and fail to teach lessons of personal responsibility. This is a tough balance for most parents and it is critical that we find the right balance for each child.

6. Once you hit send, you can never get it back: This is the toughest lesson for most children to comprehend. They think that only their friends can see what they post. Colleges, scholarships, employers, scour the Internet to learn about someone and to decide if that person is worthy of trust. If you don’t want something out in the world don’t hit send.

By educating our kids and us, we can minimize the risks of negative consequences from the use of technology and maintain all of its benefits.

Valerie Widmer, Executive Director

Hannah Honey