Episode 32: A Guide To Digital Parenting

How to Raise Caring and Thoughful Kids in the Digital Age

Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

Parenting requires constant monitoring, educating, and balancing your children’s freedoms with healthy restrictions to keep them safe. While most parents learn how to navigate the physical world with their children, few learn how to apply the same levels of vigilance and safety to helping their children thrive online in the digital world.

We really, really need to address that.  

So let’s begin with what research has already revealed about technology: although it’s useful, cool, and a tremendous convenience... it’s also very addictive to young minds. When used addictively, technology can cause brain damage, health problems, depression & loneliness as well as safety and sleep problems.

The good news? The opposite is also true: teens “who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy.

You can’t get more clear than that. Perhaps this is why some tech executives follow in the footsteps of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and restrict or even eliminate their own children’s tech time at home. 

Just, so I’m clear: although I mostly use the term “parent”, this episode is great for anyone who has children in their home or care: parents, grandparents, guardians, custodians, coaches, & even clergy.

If you’re going to have technology where there are also children, here are some approaches to consider:

Be a Parent First, Not a Friend

Now that you know the addictive and negative power of technology, remember: you set the rules, not your children. That means saying “no” to your children’s unsafe impulses which might feel uncomfortable at first. If that’s true for you: you’re not alone! But don’t worry: this skill grows with practice, so get in there, Champ! Even if you’re causing tears by restricting access to tech, you’re benefiting the long term health and well-being of your children. And that’s a success that’s way more important than a few tears.

Delay Screen Time

The data are clear: going online can inflict damage on young and impressionable minds. One, creative solution? Pretend that it’s 1975 and that the Internet doesn’t even exist! Life online awaits your children for the rest of their adult lives, but they only have one childhood, so let them enjoy it like you did! There’s no reason that a child under the age of seven needs access to the Internet. Instead, help raise them to become healthy, socialized humans by going old-school:

  • Playing with Legos, Lincoln Logs, and electronic science kits.

  • Joining groups, clubs, and teams who share activities together.

  • Reading books to your child to help their imaginations to run wild.

  • Exploring the power and beauty of nature, up close.

A Child’s Technology Is The Parent’s Responsibility

At some point, your children will reach the age when technology becomes a more natural part of learning and exploring the world. If your kids are reaching that age, then having technology in your home is a solid investment in your children’s futures. But first, you should understand two, important ideas:

  1. Parents must never use technology as a babysitter.

  2. Parents should only give their children access to technology after they’ve first learned how to understand and monitor that technology.

To educate yourself about technology, start with the parent guides at ConnectSafely. I especially recommend their guide on Cyber-bullying to get clear on what it is and how to prevent it. This is important because many states hold parents civilly (and sometimes criminally) liable for the abusive online actions of their children. Last, sit down with your children to watch the fabulous videos created by NetSmartz to teach your kids about healthy and safe online hygiene. 

Technology Is a Privilege, Not a Right

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, I lost my TV privileges if I wasn’t able to keep my grades above a certain level. It’s no different with today’s technology, so think of the Internet in general—and social media in particular—as a limited privilege which is given only at appropriate times, in appropriate ways, and in appropriate places.

Here are several healthy limitations to consider:

  • No electronic devices at mealtime

  • No electronic devices in any closed or locked room

  • No electronic devices after a certain hour

Limitations on technology open up other possibilities for human connection, art, music, exploration, and good, old-fashioned day-dreaming which is vitally important for kids.

Use “Dumb” Technology Whenever Possible

“But, David! I want my kids to always have a phone in case of an emergency!”

“Great! Then buy them flip phones. That way, they can place and receive phone calls in an emergency but not have access to the addictive apps that come on all smartphones!”

Everyone’s happy, see?! Well, except for your teenagers, but they’ll recover.

As a parent, just consider the upsides: flip phones are far cheaper than smartphones and some of them - like this one - are even waterproof and drop safe. That’s a bonus for a group of humans who are known to lose and break more expensive things. And, since flip-phones don’t do Social Media, you’ll be protecting your child’s emotional well-being.

One parent who follows me emailed me another suggestion that I thought was brilliant: she’d given each of her daughters an older Apple Watch. Those devices - while more expensive than flip phones - are strapped to her children’s wrists (so they can’t be lost) and enable them to make/receive phone calls.

Will your kids whine and moan that they aren’t getting the same “cool” phones as their friends? Maybe. If so, just remind them how happy they’ll be able to call any of their friends.

Redirection: a parent’s best friend. 👍🏼 👌 ❤️

Prohibit Or Restrict Social Media

This one is easy because there’s no debate on this matter: social media harms children. From the same link, teens who spend three or more hours a day on electronic devices are “35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide.” Social media isolates people and that isolation causes loneliness and fear of missing out (also known as “FOMO”). Children —whose minds are still developing— don’t understand this concept and are at high risk for emotional damage without your help and structure. As parents, our job is to:

  • Teach our children how social media is linked to suicide

  • Talk to our kids about the differences between viewing someone’s curated, glamorous-looking online life to the actual, varied, and very flawed lives that we all actually live.

Monitor And Restrict What Your Children Do Online

Informed parents don’t want their children surfing for porn on their home’s WiFi network. But what about other kinds of questionable material? Do you want your kids to view sites devoted to dating, gambling, hate speech, or weapons? Probably not. Fortunately, there are great, affordable options:

  • For the more technically-advanced, free tools like OpenDNS can help parents filter their entire home WiFi network, blocking any or all questionable websites by changing the settings of your router.

  • For beginners and intermediate users, paid services like NetNanny and Norton Family are well-respected. They offer yearly software subscriptions (about $60-80/yr) and are fairly easy to set up if you don’t mind reading a few directions. Also, as of this newsletter episode, Norton is giving away its product for free for six months. I actually had to go back and re-read that. #PandemicDeals #GrabEmWhileYouCan

  • For those wanting a hybrid solution, Gryphon offers two, affordable, easy-to-setup wireless routers. Like the OpenDNS service, Gryphon routers protect your home network. But unlike OpenDNS, Gryphon provides an easy-to-use app which automagically connects to their routers and allows you to easily set up strong internet filtering. Then, when your kids leave the house, Gryphon offers their Homebound service as an add-on purchase for $4.99/month for up to 5 mobile devices. That app, installed on your kids’ computers and/or smart devices, ensures that - wherever they roam - instead of having free rein to access whatever content might be available from that location, they’ll instead be routed back through your Gryphon home router. This nice feature ensures that they’ll receive the same online protections that they receive at home. 

Let Them Know

One last piece of advice, everyone: be upfront with your kids. Instead of snooping and lurking digitally, just be up front: tell the kids that you’re watching what they’re doing online both for their own safety and for the safety of others.

  • Teach them to surrender their devices to you at any time and for any reason.

  • Tell them your home network will be both filtered and monitored for attempts to access questionable content.

  • If they’ve earned the privilege to have social media accounts, tell them that you’ll be following them on those platforms.

Then... actually do it!

Together, we can enjoy all the amazing benefits the Internet has to offer while still protecting our family from its most dangerous aspects.

And we’ll have fun, fun, fun ‘til Daddy took the T-bird away…

And that’s a wrap for today’s episode, everyone. Thank you again, for reading and for being a subscriber. Paid subscribers: thank you! You can leave your thoughts & questions in the comments section.

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Free subscribers, thank you as well. If you’d like to interact with me more and start leaving comments, thanks for supporting independant, well-thought-out, technology journalism. Sign up. It’s cheap and I’m totally worth it.

As always, everyone… surf safe.

Some of my popular guides…

Click here for my guide on how to choose a privacy-focused VPN.
If you’re looking to set up a VERY secure iPhone, click here.
To learn how to remove your personal data from the web, click here.
For a super cool way to NOT give your personal email address to everyone, click here.
Click here for a crash course on how to keep your devices updated.

Lastly, please know that some links in this story pay me a small commission if you decide to purchase a product that I’ve recommended. While it’s not a lot of money, I need to be transparent. Every product and service I recommend are those I’ve personally purchased, tested, or use myself. Other recommendations may include products that I’ve deeply researched before making a recommendation.