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Our Gracie got her first smartphone when she was ten years old. We wanted to wait, terrified of the creeps and porn and the rest of it. But she needed to contact us for pickup from dance, and that’s how her friends connected. Without a phone, she got left out of plans and private jokes. She was feeling more and more alone, and we worried she was depressed. We caved. We couldn’t take the begging and crying. We tried to do it smartly, starting with a phone and no social media. We read articles about risks and checked her phone regularly. We insisted she wait until she was 13-year-old for social media. We allowed only YouTube and TikTok to start. She’s loved it and quickly started feeling better. Two years later, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to allow Instagram. She’s 12 now, so it’s maybe a little early. We’ve talked to her about it a lot. She rolls her eyes, but I think she gets it. She’s smart and funny and social. We are confident she’ll be fine. At least we hope so…

And there it is, the way it happens for most families now. As a screen safety expert, mom, and psychologist, I get it. We all outsource to our phones: for memory, entertainment, navigation, design, communication. When’s the last time you memorized a phone number or planned a trip with a paper map? We are cyborgs and so are our kids. Digital fluency is part of life and a critical element to education, especially now. Screen restriction until high school may be wise, but it isn’t an option for most families. We survived running around town with our friends unsupervised. Is screen time really that big of a deal

The short answer is . . . that it can be. Preventing screen-loving kids from wandering into a dangerous digital neighborhood isn’t always possible, especially at the beginning. We are too busy, and they are too clever for us to supervise everything they do online. Even the best tech tools have workarounds. But there is one step you cannot miss if you think they are ready for social media, teaching them judgment and accountability like we do before they are allowed to drive a car independently. Does driving city streets have anything in common with browsing the internets?

As a psychologist who treats digital injury (psychological harm resulting from internet use), I would argue it does. Like driving a car, browsing the internet can cause significant injury. The stats about skyrocketing mood and anxiety disorders among kids reflect that. Also like driving, kids on the internet can wander into any kind of digital neighborhood making friends from faraway places. Most of the places they visit are cool, with fun friends, creativity, and harmless excitement. But there are also digital neighborhoods that kids visit that would horrify us. Dangerous people like predators and traffickers are common there and so is intensely violent and explicit sexual content. Kids who’ve learned the traffic laws from driver’s training and practiced for many hours with invested parents and trained experts are safer. So much safer that the government requires these prerequisites before getting a state-issued driver’s license. Doesn’t it make sense to offer the same support for screen use?

Yes, we could just keep them off screens and avoid the issue altogether. Yet, also like a car, the internet offers us to access learning opportunities that help us thrive. Despite the risk of accidents, most of us drive because we refuse to miss out on that great job and amazing discovery and healthy social connections. Our kids fell the same way about their screen devices. If allowed to browse with little training, more accidents seem certain. That is why my private practice is flourishing. But I would argue that treatment doesn’t erase trauma. It helps with coping; but once a child experiences danger on the internet, that memory never goes away.

What can you do to help tweens and teens browse more safely with sound judgment and accountability?

Require Internet training. Like driver’s training, an online training course teaches critical skills for social media readiness. Further, the course must have several features similar to driver’s training courses, such as:

  • lots of verifiable facts and information about online risk and screen use (no fake news),
  • expert strategies and techniques to optimize psychological health and judgment,
  • realistic exercises that illustrate typical online scenarios and help coach sensible resolutions,
  • trigger topics to encourage smart parent-child discussions to further build a healthy alliance,
  • accountability quizzes so you know they are actually learning as they go, and
  • opportunity for the child to act independently and practice without parent guidance (although course access for parents who want to take it first or along with them is optimal).

What do you think? Does browsing the vast internet pose risk for tweens and teens? Do prevention measures make sense rather than relying on treatment only? Is it time that parents require kids to demonstrate problem-solving mastery before allowing them access to popular social media platforms like TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat?

If you are interested in hearing more, visit https://getkidsinternetsafe.com/social-media-readiness-course/.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
GetKidsInternetSafe.com

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