Parenting in the Internet Era

I was 13 when I first experienced unrestricted internet access.

My parents gave me a 1st generation iPhone for my bar mitzvah, and of course, within a week, I was using it to watch porn.

Since Corona hit, I would bet that many parents around the world have been confronting the challenges of regulating the internet for their children.

This is not a new problem, but Corona may be accelerating these challenges as many school districts will be holding online-only classes in the fall; and parents who can afford the extra expense will probably consider buying laptops or tablets for their children at an earlier age than they otherwise would have.

Parents who wouldn’t have bought a computer for their child until the age of 13 may now be tempted to buy one for their 8-year-old.

There are two problems that can emerge from the earlier onset of unrestricted internet access: screen addiction and unsuitable content.

I won’t be addressing the problem of screen addiction too much, even though I think it’s very serious. I cringe at the thought of a 9-year-old who spends all day in front of a screen rather than at a playground. Unfortunately, I’m basing that image on memory, since that 9-year-old was me.

The single biggest regret of my childhood was the sheer amount of time I wasted in front of the TV.

There are ways to prevent screen dependency: limit phones to 1 hour per night, have a “no screens during dinner” policy, etc.

However, it’s the second problem of unsuitable content that worries me more.

For children, content on the web can range from mindless to malignant. There are YouTubers out there who just do livestreams of themselves playing video games, which is innocuous enough, but there are also rabbit holes of conspiracy theorists, pseudo-scientific snake oil salesmen, and (of course) lots and lots of porn.

Thankfully, my TV habit was at least somewhat moderated by the network executives who knew not to put inappropriate material on Nickelodeon, but no such moderation exists on the web.

No parent would take their 7 year old to see a horror movie or get them 50 Shades of Grey from the library. With traditional media, parents have a good feel for what is age-appropriate and what is not.

We likely have a good feel for the age-appropriateness of the online content we consume as well, but our children don’t. Their senses of suitability aren’t developed — and in some cases, their curiosity will compel them to knowingly search for sites that parents have decreed are off-limits. This can be a tricky situation to handle, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that the internet is simply too vast to police.

The sheer ineptitude of basic online hygiene is enough of a reason to be concerned. If your child stumbles on a porn site (which is far easier than you think) and clicks on an advertisement, they could be downloading malware onto your computer.

Worse, there are hundreds of young children (especially girls) who fall prey to pedophiles every year through online manipulation, and predators can convince young children to send nude pictures without the child’s parents ever knowing.

Some may be tempted to say that these issues can be solved by liberal use of parental controls (the setting parents can use to blacklist certain sites). That may work for a time, but sites are bound to slip between the cracks. What’s more, if you block something like YouTube, then you’re cutting off your child from a world of good quality content as well as harmful content. I maintain that it’s not worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

To be sure, there is excellent content out there for children of all ages. Personally, I watch things like TED-Ed and Crash Course, despite the fact that those channels are explicitly geared towards high school students. In fact, YouTube is my greatest source of education besides audiobooks, and I have a finely curated list of creators I subscribe to after nearly a decade of careful selection and conscious decision making.

Rather than turning your child’s computer into a safe haven that will protect them from the vacuum of awful content on the web (which is a fool’s errand), you can teach them how to navigate the web safely no matter where they traverse.

Don’t build them a spaceship, build them a spacesuit.

It is absolutely possible to inculcate the proper values they’ll need as they grow up in the internet era, and it’s a vital part of their education. In the same way we teach 4-year-olds not to run in the street, we have to teach 7-year-olds to be self aware of where they are on the web (and who will run them over if they’re not careful).

There are three main components to this education: media literacy and healthy skepticism, distrust of anyone not known personally, and basic online security precautions.

Media literacy is perhaps the hardest to teach, but it can be done. Watch this Crash Course series on navigating digital information. Being able to identify misinformation and conspiracy theories is difficult for young kids, but they need to know that just because they see something on the internet, that doesn’t make it true.

The distrust of anyone not known personally is exceptionally important as kids start to download social media apps with any direct messaging functionality. If they have their Instagram set to public (which they shouldn’t), then anyone can DM them, and that’s an invitation for predatory behavior. Parents should teach their children to delete any unwanted messages without even opening them.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, parents need to instruct their children on the basic principles of online security. Don’t use simple passwords, never share passwords with anyone for any reason, use 2-factor authentication, never share financial information or pictures with sensitive material, etc.

There are other things to teach, of course, but they mostly fall under those umbrellas.

This raises another big question: how should parents monitor and enforce this behavior?

Personally, I’m not a fan of the “hand over your phone” approach, since children will quickly learn to hide their illicit behavior or delete their browsing histories. It also erodes the respect for privacy that I think parents ought to uphold, even for their own children. It’s important to reinforce the notion that children can be independent and autonomous, and just as parents allow 15-year-olds to lock their bedroom doors, so too should parents allow their children a modicum of online privacy.

So, instead of taking their phone and checking for anything suspicious manually, parents can invite their children to share information voluntarily about their online habits. Parents can ask their children what YouTube shows they’ve been watching, what sites they’ve been visiting, etc. and do so in a way that isn’t invasive, but genuinely curious. When parents take an interest in their child’s online activity, they get the double benefit of being able to evaluate their online safety along with the joy of seeing their child’s passions blossom.

If parents find something unsuitable, they can gently but unequivocally steer their child in the right direction, pointing them to sites like TED-Ed and channels like Crash Course. There is a wealth of wonderful information on the web, and the internet can be profoundly insightful and edifying. I personally hate the term edutainment since I think it’s incredibly dorky, but the concept is fabulous and their are creators online who specialize in educational, entertaining content tailored to children from 5 to 15.

I’ll end this piece with one last appeal: unrestricted internet access is nothing like anything we’ve seen before. The internet as we know it has only been around for 20 years, and so parents raising children younger than 20 cannot possibly know the impacts and effects of the internet on young minds. This is a new and unregulated substance, and it deserves to be treated with commensurate caution.

I’m approachable!