Avoiding Dangers When Your Kids Are Using Screen Media

by , M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (sign up for monthly parenting newsletter and receive 20+ printable charts for kids and parents)

Digital technology has made parenting increasingly more difficult. Once upon a time you knew when your kids got a phone call because you heard the phone ring may have even answered it before passing it to your child. Today your children are likely to have their own cellphones and you may be unaware of who they are talking to and when.

With the help of digital devices, your children can be seriously misbehaving in your own home and you may be completely ignorant of it. Prior to digital technology, it was unlikely that your pre-teen kids would be breaking the law without you noticing anything. Now some parents are getting a rude awakening when the police show up at their door because their children have committed a felony online!

Getting Into Serious Trouble

If your children have access to computers, connected video games or cellphones, they are a click away from committing a crime. Most children do not understand just how legally serious their online actions are taken.
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For example, the Seattle Pi reported, "Two Issaquah girls accused of hacking into a classmate's Facebook page and posting lewd messages were charged Monday with cyberstalking and first-degree computer trespassing." These 11 and 12-years-old girls are now facing felony charges.

It's unlikely these 6th grade girls' parents knew what they were doing on Facebook until the police got involved. It's unclear if they had even approved their girls getting Facebook accounts; Facebook tries to enforce a minimum age of 13.

These girls now have criminal records which would be unlikely to have happened before the digital age. They quickly learned how seriously the law takes cyberbullying.

There are lots of other stories of kids getting in trouble by using Facebook to publicly humiliate someone. There were 28 students at McClure Middle School in Seattle suspended after bullying a classmate on Facebook.

Some kids are also breaking the child pornography laws by sexting - sending nude or nearly nude images of themselves to others. According to Common Sense Media, approximately 20% of teens have done sexting. Police confiscated the cellphones of 11 middle school students in Bothell, WA who were involved in a sexting scandal. These students are under investigation and may face criminal charges.

Therese Fowler's teen son was arrested for sexting. Her experience led her to writing the book Exposure.

In a letter she explained, "A few months after my son's arrest, months in which his lawyer had urged us to stay silent about what was going on, the idea for Exposure came to me. I'm certain it grew from my horror and frustration with what was going on, and the effects events had on my son and on our family. I asked my son what he thought about my writing a novel inspired by the situation, and he was fully supportive. I wouldn't have done it otherwise."

Hopefully the lessons in Fowler's story can help others avoid similar problems.

Monitoring Your Children's Use of Digital Technology

Your job of keeping your kids safe online is a tough one! It's hard to provide guidance to your children if you don't know what they are doing.

Your children have many ways to access the internet - computers, cellphones, IPODs, handheld games and game consoles often have internet access. When you think about how to keep your kids safe, you first need to consider how they access the internet.

For younger children, these approaches can help restrict inappropriate internet access:

  • Monitoring software, parental control software
  • Software that only allows access to a limited set of predefined web sites
  • Parental approval required for any new web sites
Monitoring software is by its nature historical. It doesn't prevent children from making poor decisions online; it typically alerts you to what has already been done. While monitoring software can provide helpful information about what your children are doing online, you still need to play a large role in helping your children think before they click.

You can help yourself out by establishing rules like no TV or computers in your children's bedrooms. Have them turn their cellphones in at night too so that they aren't busy texting when they should be sleeping!

Helping Kids Think Before They Click

Teaching children to think ahead to possible consequences isn't easy. Thinking through consequences before acting is rather sophisticated for children whose brains aren't fully developed until their mid-20's! The prefrontal cortex which is responsible for thinking through consequences is one of the last areas to completely develop.

Plan to have multiple small discussions with your children on their use of digital technology. News stories can be a great source of conversation. Listen carefully to their thoughts and ideas to gain a better understanding on the depth of their thinking.

It's important to cover topics like:

  • Anything entered on the internet or shared via texting is permanent and traceable.
  • Be careful not to give away too much personal information.
  • Post only things you'd be happy for your grandparents, teachers and college admission counselors to see.
  • Talk to us about anything that seems odd or bothers you when online.
  • Ask for approval before downloading anything.
  • When online, take into account that people can lie about things like their age and gender.
Give careful consideration to when you feel your child is ready to handle the additional responsibility of a digital device or web site. If in doubt, delay it until they are older and more mature.

About Kathy Slattengren

Kathy Slattengren

Parenting expert Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., is dedicated to supporting parents in doing their best parenting. She helps families create homes where everyone feels accepted, heard, respected and appreciated.

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