Talking to Your Child About Online Safety
By Amy Scholl
In 2010, the average age at which children in the U.S. received their first cellphone was 13. Today, it is under 10 – and continuing to fall, as evidenced by development of smartphone and tablet apps such as YouTube Kids, My Little Pony and Thomas & Friends. Indeed, while children of the 90s might have spent Saturday morning watching cartoons on the living room TV, kids today are more likely to be watching the same cartoons on an iPad in their room.
Due to the recency in which smart phones have arrived – remember, the original iPhone only came out in 2007 – society today is essentially holding a collective experiment to determine how electronic devices will affect our children’s development. What we know now isn’t exactly reassuring: cellphone use in young people has been linked to changes in attention, hyperactivity and reaction time. Researchers from the University of California noted in a recent study that cellphones constantly demand children’s attention and can impact their ability to focus on other activities.
At the same, however, parents have a limited ability to curtail their children’s use of tablets and smart phones, many of which may already be readily accessible around the house. For parents who are concerned about their children’s safety outside of the home, having an easy and dependable link to their child is also important.
For busy parents, using a phone or tablet might seem like an effective option to entertain a hyperactive child. Yet this runs counter to the advice recommended by the Nurtured Heart Approach®, which prepares parents to better respond to children with ADHD. According to the Nurtured Heart Approach®, when children feel they receive more attention by acting out, bad behavior is reinforced with a positive outcome. Parents who respond to bad behavior are more likely to show more emotion, be more excited and react more attentively to their child.
As you might guess, giving a phone to a child is not a substitute for paying attention to him or her. What this means is that using tablets and smart phones as a parenting “crutch” simply increases the chance of a child acting out in order to receive real attention. There are only so many iPad games and YouTube videos that a child will amuse herself with before she looks for attention from mom and dad. Unfortunately, many parents have learned to associate electronic devices as a distraction to keep kids well-behaved, perhaps while the adults are busy with something. In doing so, a child learns to associate good behavior with disinterested, unenergized interactions with parents. Only by misbehaving can she regain her parents’ true focus.
A couple nights ago, I was waiting at my favorite hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant for some takeout, which was being prepared by a very busy mom and dad team in the kitchen. Meanwhile, their two-year-old was playing with a phone at the table next to mine. As I watched, he began to grow increasingly bored and looked up at his mom working away in the kitchen, then put down the phone and scurried directly in. Given the multiple scalding hot woks and open flames about, this immediately earned a harsh scolding from mom, who was forced to pause and carry her son back out to the dining room. The whole situation perfectly demonstrated the challenge of entertaining children with electronics – although I’m not sure I could do any better if I were that busy!
There is another, darker reason to avoid giving children electronics for entertainment until they are mature adolescents. Simply put, the Internet can be a dangerous place for kids. In late 2017, multiple outlets began reporting on the disturbing trend of YouTube videos appearing that are aimed at kids but contain disturbing footage, often featuring characters from cartoons and movies that are popular with children. Although YouTube has attempted to adjust its search algorithm to block many of these videos from appearing, as of August 2018 many of them are still live on the site.
If that isn’t enough, the Internet is rife with online predators who seek out young children to “groom” and engage with in sexually explicit conversations. Young children, even those who have been instructed not to talk to strangers, are unprepared for the realities of online interaction. Setting up filters to block chat rooms and other dangerous websites is certainly recommended if you will be letting your child use an internet-connected device unsupervised, but do you really want to take the chance at all? Perhaps a safer solution is to wait until your children are old enough to better understand the kinds of people that are out there. For most parents, that’s probably a conversation that can wait a while.
Amy Scholl is Youth Technology Safety Specialist at KidGuard, dedicated to finding the best child safety measures for parents, grounded in research. Being knowledgeable about youth online usage is a key component of effective 21st-century parenting.