In our connected world unfamiliar activities make adults worry about kids, and violent and exploitative events, some connected to the digital world, make us fear for our children’s safety. This past week two events, a 13-year-old’s ruthless murder that was associated with online app interactions and a Wall Street Journal article, Cyberthieves Have a New Target: Children, made many of us wonder, once again, whether the digital world is degrading the quality of our lives.
For me the week reinforced the importance of parents understanding what their children are up to on digital devices. It’s a serious responsibility, it requires enormous time and energy, and we cannot hire outside experts to do it for us. The work requires every parenting skill that we’ve ever developed and more, and if you are not up to it you need to consult a parent education organization, such as the Parenting Encouragement Program (PEP) in my area, that offers training to parents.
The funny thing is, some of the apps and websites that we worried about became mainstream, though that does not lessen our supervisory responsibilities. In the digital world new things come and go—some awful, some innocuous, some inappropriate, some interesting, and some useful enough that adults become the primary users.
Remember Facebook? The angst surrounding Facebook in the early years was unending, and adults had legitimate concerns, including teenage behavior and loss of privacy. In 2014 Susannah Fox, over at Pew Internet Research Project, Tweeted statistics from her organization’s Social Networking Fact Sheet—73% of online adults now use social networking sites, 71% are on Facebook, and the average age of Facebook users is 41 years. Becoming mainstream, though, doesn’t lessen the the guidance parents need to give to kids who use the site.
The problem with some new apps and sites is that the developers have taken pains to figure out ways that remove adults or adult monitoring from the picture using anonymity, thus intentionally separating the parents from their growing children. Yet in most of these forums young users can easily access unconscionable content.
For some reason, many of the people who create these apps believe preadolescents and teens are entitled to anonymity, yet almost everything we know about the development of middle and high school kids indicates how dangerous that can be. Children do need private and anonymous opportunities to share, but such situations should be carefully constructed and facilitated but certainly not worldwide free-for-alls. It’s a mistake to drop children, unsupported, into anonymous arenas when their moral and ethical decision-making skills are just beginning to evolve.
And that brings us back to digital parenting. Adults must focus on learning more, supervising more, and then maybe worrying a bit less, no matter where kids work or play—that’s part of 21st Century extreme parenting. These anonymous content sites are out there for now, and while we cannot choose to be disconnected in a digital world, we can choose to help our children build a children a protective armor, assisting them in making good choices, supervising, accumulating our own knowledge, and defining what is acceptable and appropriate and what is not. On occasion, we can even say no. Read my post, Three Basic Digital Parenting Guidelines.
We’re all connected. Technology has made lots of things easier and lots of things, parenting among them, much more difficult. As Washington Post writer, Petula Dvorak, responding to the murder of that 13-year-old girl, wrote in her column “Smartphones have made it easier to keep tabs on our children—and much, much harder.”
N.B. Read the first part of this series on digital parenting fears, Digital Parenting Fear: What Digital Risks Should We Worry About the Most, Part I. You might also want to read my post, How Quickly Do New Apps Gain Kids’ Attention?