This month’s column might not be what you are expecting. It doesn’t include endorsements for the latest security apps to keep your child safe online or to measure how much screen time your child is amassing. What it does include are the perspectives of two parents on what is working for their families. It’s why this column is called “Parent conversations.” We’re not here with all the answers. We’re here with support and to share our experiences. Maybe these methods won’t work in your situation. Maybe you have another perspective to share. If that’s the case, we’d love to hear from you. Just e-mail email@example.com or submit it here.
By the way, if you do have concerns about your child’s online experiences, take a look at the colored box below. It includes some great information from a professional counselor who works with young adults (and is raising three as well).
— Nicole Balza
EVEN IN THESE CRAZY times, we all know the rules: Limit kids’ screen time. Regularly check their social media. Keep the computer in a shared space so you can supervise.
They’re wise and practical rules. And we don’t keep any of them.
If kids are trustworthy, trust them
It’s not just because of COVID-19 either. Sam, our 17-year-old, has always been on his computer a lot, and he’s on it alone in his room. We follow him on Instagram, but we don’t do regular checks of Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, or WhatsApp.
Are we negligent? Naïve? I don’t know. He gets good grades, and he’s busy with sports, student council, choir, and a job. He seems emotionally healthy and his teachers say nice things about him, so we think he’s doing okay. Also, we don’t want to give up the living room.
I can hear myself being a little defensive, but I’ll keep going.
We do talk about the dangers of the internet. We talk the poor kid to death about the online bullying some insecure kids do and the sinister grooming some depraved adults do.
When we hear about kids sending each other nude photos, we unflinchingly explore the immorality, the disrespect, the long-term consequences, and the basic stupidity of that.
When a community is alerted about violent threats found in a student’s messages or posts, we talk about that too, primarily about how that student must be in a lot of pain.
But we’re not strict. Should we be?
Maybe if Sam were younger, we’d establish stronger boundaries. In fact, I can hear myself encouraging all three of our kids someday to eschew screens completely with their children—my grandchildren!—at least for the first few years of their precious little lives. All that screen time messes with kids’ synapses and vision and attention span and other things we don’t even know about yet. But after giving that unsolicited advice, I’ll have to admit, “I know, I’m a total hypocrite. Screens were a huge part of your childhoods! You were raised at least 30 percent by Walt Disney.”
Maybe if Sam were the kind of teen who craved the adrenaline spike of risky behaviors, we’d worry more and then enforce more rules. But he’s not. He’s a risk-averse young adult who’ll be on his own at college in a year. So as long as he keeps earning our trust, we will keep trusting him.
Being online is second-nature to today’s kids
Today Sam and almost every other kid in America is doing online learning full time. He’s holed up in his room doing quadratic equations, writing a paper on fake news, attending a Google Meet for his economics class, and listening to “The Age of Aquarius,” which his choir was going to sing in their now-canceled trip to Disney. I’m sure he’s also watching YouTube videos of basketball players and sharing mildly humorous Snapchats with his friends. Later, he’ll probably play NBA 2K with a couple of them.
Sam is going to be in his room for most of the day, on his computer, unsupervised. And we’re okay with that.
I LIKE SHORTCUTS and life hacks. Anything that makes life easier and gets me through my tasks more quickly so I can get on to things I really love. But sometimes shortcuts don’t work. Sometimes, slow and steady wins the race, and fast is slow and slow is fast. That certainly seems to be the case with raising responsible, godly children. There’s no secret recipe, no life hack where if you just do this one thing they’ll magically turn out perfect.
So too, when it comes to keeping our kids safe while at the same time respecting their privacy, I don’t think there are any quick fixes. To be sure, safety is an issue, especially in today’s digital world. There are scams and cyber bullies as well as images, videos, and websites no one should see, let alone kids! And those are just the threats “out there.” I also want to keep my kids safe from themselves: from being the bully, from wasting their time on things that don’t edify, from losing the ability to socialize without electronics, and from having their brains rewired by too much screen time.
So what to do? I suppose I could download some monitoring software for my kids’ phones. I could install a keylogger to run hidden in the background of their laptops. I could listen by the door when they talk on the phone and shadow my kids in the streets. But at what cost? Such “shortcuts” would only teach my kids they are being watched. What happens when they leave home and Mom and Dad aren’t monitoring?
I want a longer term fix to keep my kids safe while still respecting their privacy.
So I want a longer term fix to keep my kids safe while still respecting their privacy. I have a two-pronged solution that we’re attempting at our house.
First, we’re limiting our kids’ screen time. That certainly doesn’t make us popular parents when “everyone else” gets unlimited time because “their parents trust them.” But it does teach them that they can go outside, talk to friends in person, and play games that use cards and dice instead of pixels.
But our second prong is the most effective in the long run, as someday they’ll leave home and be in charge of their own screen time, their own chats, and their own lives. We spend time teaching our kids God’s law and what he says about bullying and what type of entertainment is pleasing to him. We apply God’s gospel—the forgiveness that is theirs in Jesus—which motivates them to live productive lives for him and serve him in thanks. We daily share that law-gospel message, and we trust that God will keep our kids safe as they grow to make good decisions for him.
We rejoice as we watch them grow and mature and see the opportunities they have, even on the internet, to bring glory to God! “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6 Evangelical Standard Version). There’s no shortcut for that.
Authors: Multiple authors
Volume 107, Number 06
Issue: June 2020