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This morning I was invited to participate in the discussion, “How Parents Balance Privacy and Safety for Kids Online” on NPR WBEZ Morning Shift, Chicago. Host, Jen White, chose this topic based on a conversation she had when her best friend intervened with her 13-year-old son who took it upon himself to defend a peer against an Internet predator. Along with the other expert guest, Susan Tran from Depaul University, we discussed important issues that impact parents and families due to child smartphone use. Here are the highlights from the show, as well as a very personal story about my daughter just this weekend that shook me to my core.

Jen first asked about the challenges parents are facing in today’s digital age. Susan started the conversation saying that parents are concerned about risks like cyberbullying, access to unwanted content, and privacy issues like sharing too much personal information. I added that I’m seeing a spike in anxiety and mood disorders resulting from digital injuries. The danger is real, and parents need to do more, sooner, with better efficacy. Of course, if you are a frequent reader of the GetKidsInternetSafe blog, you are also aware of risks like health issues from screens like distraction from healthy relationships and activities (sleep, exercise, mindful eating), repetitive use injuries, and brain impacts (multitasking, mental brownout, addiction); interpersonal exploitation like cyberbullying, online predators, deceptive relationships (catfishing and hate groups and cults), and the encouragement of dangerous behaviors with pranks, online forums, and sexting; and exploitation for profit by selling violent or sexual content, product marketing, and cybersecurity issues. So many to talk about, so little time!

But there are also benefits. One benefit is the ability to monitor our kids for location and communication, real-time. This provides us with safety but also risks overparenting. In other words, parents can become too intrusive. I compared online access to a child wandering an airport. Of course, parents would want to know who kids were talking to and what they were talking about with strangers at the airport. It would dangerous for them to be wandering around alone, unsupervised. They face the same risks online. I believe we need to monitor most certainly, but we also need to let kids make their own mistakes and expand their independence by building resilience over time. We need to be there, slowly offering more opportunities for growth over time.

Jen stated that, according to a Pew Research report from 2016, about 48 percent of parents go through their kids’ text messages and call histories. Is it ever okay for parents to cyber-spy on their kids? My answer is yes to monitoring, no to spying. It’s difficult to know how to monitor, especially when kids push back with “I deserve my privacy” and “You’re the only mom who does that.” We give in to pester power too often. We don’t trust our gut and give them too much credit as digital natives. The truth is, with their immature brains and not a lot of experience yet, they can’t anticipate consequence and don’t realize how dangerous the world can be. They need us. Susan added that the conversation about child privacy changes with every generation. The key is having strong communication between parents and teens to navigate challenges as they arrive.

Jen’s friend called in and told her story about how she implemented strategies with her son, eloquently explaining the same process I experience with kids and teens in session. That is that kids will actually accept and even welcome reasonable limits, as long as the parent takes the time to explain their justifications and calmly negotiates the details. In fact, parent rules and supervision often calm kids down. Teens in particular often get too confident in their abilities to manage difficult online situations and get in over their heads. Having parent limits in place often provides them with an excuse to not get involved and even ask for help when they need it. This is the very dynamic that keeps kids devoted to therapy. Instead of firing me when I suggest limits, they are actually quite grateful. Setting fair limits is the first step to building an honest, open alliance.

Caller Kyle then expressed that he is totally lost and needs help finding software and apps for filtering and monitoring his kids’ phones. I shared some specific ideas, like setting parental controls on devices and through Internet service providers as well as setting privacy settings. Also buying third party services like Teensafe, Disney’s Circle, and OurPact can help. But the bottom line is, once your kids are instant messaging on social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, there is no third party software that monitors them. Instead, all you can do is collect usernames and passwords and check their phones regularly. Look out for secret profiles, as many kids have several in one platform (e.g., private and ultraprivate accounts on Instagram). Asking them to dock their screens at night, in your room to avoid sneaking, offers a regular opportunity to spot check. Please be honest about it. You don’t want to violate their trust. Besides, it gets them into the habit of realizing that other adults will see their posts and texts too, like other parents and school administrators. They may think before they post more if they see this as a possibility. If you want to monitor everything on smartphones, don’t allow social media.

As an illustration that it takes lots of tools and teamwork to keep our kids safe. I shared an incident that just happened to our family yesterday. We were at a volleyball tournament in Vegas with my 15-year-old daughter. When she was stretching and warming up with her team, a man snapped her photo without permission. The girls were aware enough (awesome) that my daughter’s teammate told the team mom. The team mom courageously approached the man and required that he delete the photo from his phone and in the deleted photos file as well. She also assured my daughter that she did nothing wrong. She had great concern that she would feel humiliation or blame and took efforts to reassure her. We were very grateful, wondering if he was a clueless grandpa like he said, or one of the 1:100 men out there that was a pedophile. Three hours later this same man was courtside with a telephoto lense during a game. We called security and asked him to stop taking photos of the girls. He apologized with suspicious insincerity and refused to wait for security. Security ultimately came and escorted him out for investigation, assuring us they have handled many cases like this before. Disturbing, yes. I was literally shaking I was so angry. It took awareness and trust for the girls and parents to work together for protection. For that I was proud and grateful. Another caller on the show reminded us to always keep digital evidence (videos, screenshots, and text strings) for law enforcement investigations.

How do we get past teen hesitation to talk to adults? Parents must get empowered and digitally literate by reading articles like those offered on the GetKidsInternetSafe blog. Around the dinner table (with devices in the basket), tell stories and ask their opinions. They will tell you stories in response. Viola! The cooperative dialogue has begun. Bidirectional learning overtime strengthens relationships and creates lots of learning opportunities.

When should kids get a smartphone? Susan said it’s different for every family, but be sure to be gradual. Start with a phone that’s not connected to the Internet. I added that parents are slipping. We need to get tougher. Don’t allow kids smartphones until after they’ve earned good grades the first semester of middle school. This will require gradual evidence of the judgement and initiative they need to manage a very powerful communication tool. For some kids, even middle school is too soon.

We ended with caller, Lucy, reminding us that parents need to model limits and set the example. Show kids that they are the priority, not screens. Set the message young that face-to-face interaction and nonvirtual relationships are the priority.

Thank you to WBEZ Morning Shift for such an important conversation to build closer relationships and safer screen use! To listen to the whole radio segment, CLICK HERE

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

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Dr. Tracy Bennett