A few years ago I was working with a 12-year-old client who was struggling to stay motivated to complete his homework and make better grades in school. His parents were exasperated. After exploring various interventions, the family resorted to an incentive plan. The one thing this boy wanted more than anything was an iPhone. To earn the phone, he and the family agreed that in order to earn the phone, he must achieve all A’s on his report card. For this particular student, getting all A’s was not that difficult if only he studied and turned in his work. Therefore, an iPhone seemed obtainable.
Many weeks later, I saw my client and his mother again. Walking into the waiting room, I saw he had a big grin on his face. He was very proud holding up the iPhone exclaiming, “Dr. G, I did it!” I congratulated him and as is my standard practice, met with the mother first to get an update on his progress. Away from her son, I casually asked the mom, “Have you activated the parental controls?” She responded dismissively stating, “Oh, he’s a good boy. He wouldn’t be interested in looking at inappropriate things.” I then suggested I get his phone and take a look.
Back in the waiting room, my client was playing on his phone. I asked if I could check it out. He agreed, but when I tried to turn on the phone, the passcode appeared. When I asked for the passcode, he refused. I let them know if he did not share the passcode, he would no longer have a phone. He then reluctantly gave up the code, so I could unlock his phone. Returning to my office with the phone and without my client, I opened up the internet browser history to show his mother. The history showed he had been looking at Pokémon sites, as well as funny videos; however, three open tabs reported a message stating, “Blocked due to inappropriate content.” His mother was shocked, and I informed her that the average age a child discovers online pornography is around the age of 10. When we confronted her son, he adamantly denied ever looking at such information. He denied it to the point of tears, and the mother and I had to trust our instinct that he was lying. She took his phone.
A week later, the client and his mother returned. I was expecting him to admit his wrongdoing and we could then proceed with discussing appropriate electronic boundaries and safeguards. But to my surprise, I was wrong. Years previously, the family had installed protection software on their home Internet system which blocked inappropriate content. That’s another reason why the mother was so surprised. But as it turns out, my client had not looked at anything inappropriate. His older brother did. His brother had borrowed the phone and walked to the far upstairs corner of the house where he could pick up the Wi-Fi signal from a neighbor. That internet signal was not protected, and he was then able to look at pornography. I profusely apologized to my client, and he graciously acknowledged he probably would have come to the same conclusion I did.
Two lessons can be learned from this story. One, you can never ever ensure your children will be safe from inappropriate content online. And two, your children will always know more about technology than you ever will. Staying ahead of them in protecting your home will ultimately lead to failure and frustration. Instead of trying to outsmart your kids, I want you to consider the concept of “E-Parenting.”
What is E-Parenting?
Being an “E-parent” does not mean you need to be well-versed in all the technological trends nor understand every parental control system that can filter inappropriate content. In fact, protecting your kids from technology is practically impossible. To be an “E-Parent” means simply to deliberately and consistently be engaged in your child’s electronic life. Combined with your involvement in their lives should be your ability to think critically about technology and not be dogmatic.
For example, in the late 40s, comic books were on the rise, and children were voraciously reading Superman comics. However, a groundswell of fear regarding Superman swept professional and government circles culminating in Senate hearings proposing to ban sales of comics to kids. Dr. Fredric Wertham wrote, “…the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the ‘comic’ magazine."
Now, who in their right mind would think Superman comics would result in delusions of grandeur with children jumping off buildings in an attempt to fly? Today we find this kind of thinking foolish. And, thankfully, comic books were not banned. However, we continue to live in a time where this kind of thinking continues to prevail. The prevailing attitude is that violent or “M-rated” video games cause children to be violent. Despite what you may have heard, here is no consistent research supporting this fear. And due to our emotionally-wired brains and fear of school shootings, we quickly jump to the conclusion that violent video games are to blame. In reality, school shootings are caused by mental illness and not video games.
Most research suggests that, in moderation, video games have a number of benefits such as improving hand-eye coordination and increasing problem-solving skills. Take Angry Birds as an example. It’s a game most of us have played. In short-bursts, this game teaches visual problem-solving and helps kids rehearse executive problem-solving though sequential planning. Research out of the University of Rochester suggests action games such as Call of Duty or Halo provide training for the real world. Daphne Bavelier states, “Action game players make more correct decisions per unit time. If you are a surgeon or you are in the middle of a battlefield, that can make all the difference.”
Socialization skills can also be enhanced by video games. Multiplayer games are very popular and include World of Warcraft and Clash of Clans, all very popular games with violent elements. These games encourage cooperation with team members, as well as cooperation. A survey conducted with teachers by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found teachers saw an increase in collaboration among students after playing similar games in their classrooms.
I could share much more research with you explaining the benefits of all types of gaming, but I will stop here. I share this data to let you, the parent, understand how to become an excellent digital parent. You must be willing to look at all angles of a topic, be it an app, and device, or a game, and critically think about how your child is engaged electronically. Is Instagram bad? Of course, if it is used inappropriately. However, it could be awesome for a child who is an aspiring artist and wants to display their photography skills to the world. Knowing how to navigate the electronic world is a skillset most parents lack. Actually, many kids skillsets are far greater than adults. Therefore, being successful at parenting your child today requires a back and forth dialogue between the two of you to set boundaries upon and discuss the benefits and risks associated with the digital world.
Being an “E-Parent” is really no different than being a parent. People often refer to the “sex talk.” However, to successfully parent a child through issues related to sexuality, sex must be a conversation and not a one-time talk. Being able to freely talk with your child about tough topics is the hope of most parents. But the parent must be willing to listen consistently and share information the child may not have or may not have considered. The “Tech Talk” is no different than the sex talk. Having early conversations about the benefits and risks of being online is essential to successful parenting. Just saying, “Don’t put personal information online,” is not enough. Helping them understand the implications of oversharing information, as well as the risk of cyberbullying, identity theft, and fraud, is an appropriate conversation for a 7-year-old. Have these talks, but more importantly, play games with your child, engage them if they have social media, and set down thoughtful and well-reasoned rules. Being dogmatic and fearful is not the way to parent.
I add this as a separate topic because most parents lump everything tech into the topics of video games and pornography. While this is a very simplistic and narrow view of tech, this section is a necessary component of a good education for parents and can offer a platform for an on-going discussion with kids. Pornography is an epidemic in our society. In 2010, The National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families found 47% of families reporting pornography as a major problem in the home. Never before has such material been available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and free. Kids can access pornography on their phones and video games systems.
Unsupervised and/or uneducated kids are exposed to pornographic material earlier and earlier, and this imagery detrimentally alters their cognitive and social development. During the developmental stage of adolescence, viewing pornography affects sexual and moral beliefs at a stage when they are the most vulnerable. Frequent exposure to pornography is also correlated with loneliness and major depression. Self-esteem is also dramatically lowered. So what can be done? Become an “E-Parent!”
Talking about pornography is no different than talking about technology. Have a conversation with your child and make it a dialogue. Kids are smart! Build a relationship with your child early on that allows them to use the correct terms and feel comfortable with discussing hard topics. Pornography will not go away. But providing more education and more information to your child coupled with a trusting relationship with you can only help inoculate them against poor decision-making. If you discover inappropriate material, DO NOT SHAME THEM. Kids are vulnerable and often do not understand what they are seeing. Be there to explain what a healthy relationship looks like—and doesn’t look like. I would also encourage parents not to send their kid to a psychologist or pediatrician if they have discovered they are watching porn. Consider consulting with a professional without the child present and seek their advice on how to have conversations.
Helping kids navigate all the scary places related to technology can be daunting. Many parents just avoid the topic because of the vast information needed to intelligently and non-dogmatically speak on the topic. Rest assured, though. You do not need to know everything. What you need is a dialogue with your child and a way to convey understanding and trust with boundaries. If you do not have such a relationship, then now is the time to meet with a therapist to discuss your relationship with your child and how to move into a different space which allows for conversations and trust. Being an “E-Parent” is built upon this foundation. Creating such a space for conversation will not only change and improve your relationship with your child but also will affect generations to come. The following are some common questions my clients asks which may help guide you on your “E-Parent” path.
Frequently Asked Questions
I predicate my answers to these questions with a philosophy. “M-Rated” means mature and not 17-years-old. If I have a child who gets up for school independently, makes their lunch, completes their homework with good effort, and demonstrates respect, then I consider him or her mature. I look at the whole child as well when considering what freedom to allow them regarding electronics. Are they emotionally mature? Do they understand right from wrong? Do I have a good relationship with them and engage in their technological worlds? If all of these questions, as well as others specific to your family values are answered satisfactorily, then I adjust my child’s exposure to mature content as is developmentally appropriate. I allowed my own 11-year-old to play several M-rated games including Fallout 4 and Halo 5. He was offended by some of the language, but he also does not curse. He enjoyed the games immensely and I think, in part, because he was enjoying the trust I have in his use of electronic media. Would I let him play Grand Theft Auto? Absolutely not. And to be honest, there are quite a few young men in their 20s who shouldn’t be playing mature video games.
When should I give my child a phone?
Most kids are getting phones far too early. Be mindful about recognizing the balance between your own family values and those of your child’s friends. The response, “all my friends have one,” is not a valid argument. Some parents will give a child a phone at age 8 or 10, but I prefer to wait until middle school. Keeping up with kids schedules, soccer games, and playdates can be much easier with texting and appointment reminders. Also, classroom projects have a strong tech component and having a smart phone can be very useful for your student. Also, a reality of today is kids don’t talk on the phone much anymore. Text is their preferred way to communicate. Without the ability to text, your child runs the risk of becoming socially isolated. Is this a reason to get Instagram or Snap Chat? No. But factoring the variable of a child’s maturity and decision-making with appropriate tech boundaries and conversations makes the decision of when to buy your child a phone easier. There is also some big positives to your child having a phone. It allows you to maintain a bit of a connection, even as they begin to drift closer toward their peers. Sharing funny videos and letting your child know you are thinking of her during the day has a huge upside.
Should I Let My Child Have an Online Game Account?
Online videogame accounts include such things as Xbox Live and Steam. These programs and devices allow for the download video games either on a device such as an Xbox or PlayStation or on a PC. These accounts allow for socialization during multiplayer games, as well as other software features such as Skype and the usual social media apps. Allowing a child online to play video games exposes them to a variety of difficulties. The ability to interact with strangers and to be exposed to very unsavory conversations is commonplace. I do not believe it is appropriate to have a child under the age of 13 on such an account unless there is appropriate supervision. Appropriate supervision would mean allowing the parent to hear what the child is saying and what is being said to him through speakers. Using headsets and microphones can come later, when a child needs to demonstrate maturity and proof that he can handle this technology wisely under the supervision of the parent. Once a child is of appropriate maturity, these online gaming experiences can be fun and can connect your child to the world in fascinating ways. I look forward to the day when I can play Xbox Live with my own kids when they have moved on to college. And by the way, Google and YouTube are an incredible resource for you in understanding all things technology. All you have to do is search, “How can I set up parental controls on my child’s Xbox,” and there will be multiple videos of someone walking you through this process. The same can be said for iPhones, android devices, any other future technology that enters your child’s life.
How Much Should I Let My Child Play Video Games or Have Electronics? This is a difficult question. And I would say there is no hard and fast rule to follow. For some children, being allowed videogame time can cause undue strife in a family. Electronics can cause significant behavior problems in kids who are not mature enough or who have addicting personalities. With these children, it is often best to consult with a professional who can walk you through tailoring game time or electronics specifically for your child. But for most kids, especially during the elementary school years, I tend to severely limit screen time during weekdays. I will occasionally allow this activity depending upon the completion of responsibilities, attitude during the week, and special occasions. During the weekends I will allow a child in elementary school anywhere from one to three hours of gaming time. Although, balanced with this time is a child’s activities spent outdoors and active. Should the balance start to tip toward electronics versus activity, I will move electronics out of a child’s life to restore balance and to make sure they are connected with their family and their environment. Without trying to be vague, the amount of time child is spent online or in front of any screens should be an ongoing conversation between you, your spouse or partner, and your child. Finding a way to problem-solve this issue is a critical-thinking skill that may be developed in your child through consistent digital conversation.
Should I Read My Child’s Text Messages and Check Their Internet History? Now this is an ever trickier topic. The short answer is this: Never ever spy on your child ever! However, it is important for you to keep tabs on your child’s conversations. Therefore, the underlying rules of technology and communication which have been developed through your ongoing conversations should include guidelines for reviewing text activities. Some of these may include, never deleting text, giving the phone to a parent whenever asked, and never engaging in emotionally or sexually-charged conversation via text. As the child grows older and has demonstrated maturity, honesty, and respect, the need to check communications becomes far less important. The best outcome you can expect if you have healthy conversations with your child is he will come to you with inappropriate messages or pictures rather than you discovering them on your own. That is the definition of trust and responsibility in a technology-savvy and safe child.
What Do I Do About Social Media? Social media includes apps, on-line gaming, and other platforms. Increasingly, all technology is becoming social which further emphasizes the need for a relationally-focused and decision-making conversation with your child rather than a technology-specific talk. For example, Twitter has become popular among educators. Teachers are able to collaborate and share information in real time and quickly with large numbers of students in many different settings. Social media can allow students to collaborate in a variety of ways. Also, even shy students tend to speak into these conversations, allowing them to participate, as well. With all social media, the foundation of privacy in the recognition of online social rules continues to apply. Setting down this foundation early allows for the parent and child to understand what social media applications are appropriate and which should be avoided.
Rising to the Challenge
Thinking about technology and your child can be a daunting task and may feel exceptionally overwhelming. I encourage you to think about technology as an ongoing conversation built upon trust and honesty. Information does not hurt. Actually more information in children’s lives allows them to make better choices because the mystery is gone. Increasing conversations about sexuality decreases sexual risk-taking in teenagers. The same can be said for technology and social media. If you get overwhelmed or feel confused, remember to take a look at YouTube or Google your questions. Often, the answer is right there on your computer. A questionnaire at the end of this chapter allows you to determine the technological safety of your home and the technological prowess you possess. In addition, there is a sample code of conduct contract focusing on technology. Feel free to adapt these to your family. Technology can be fun and bring you closer to your child. It’s not something to be feared but it begins with an honest conversation.
Sample Online Code-of-Conduct Contract
● Talk with my parents to discuss the rules for using the Internet and other electronic media including where I go, what I can do, when I can go online and how long I can be connected.
● Never give out personal information about myself or my family, including addresses phone numbers or other valuable information without my parents’ permission.
● Always tell my parents immediately if I see or receive anything electronically or in the mail that makes me feel uncomfortable or threatened.
● Never agreed to meet anyone in person that I have met online without my parents’ permission.
● Never send pictures of myself or other family members to other people electronically without first checking with my parents.
● Never give out passwords to anyone including my best friends other than my parents.
● Not do anything electronically that would hurt another person or is against the law.
● Never do anything on the Internet that costs money without first asking permission from my parents.
● Never download, install, or copy anything from disks or the Internet without permission.
● Let my parents know my login information and usernames for the accounts and apps listed below:
_______________________ _____________________ ______________________
_______________________ _____________________ ______________________
Name (child) ___________________________ Date ____________ Parent or guardian _______________________ Date ____________ Parent or guardian _______________________ Date ____________
Parco, N. (n.d.). Video Games Are Not to Blame for Mass Shootings. Retrieved November 09, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nicholas-parco/violent-video-games_b_3945609.html