In the last few months, children and teens across the country have been getting more freedom than they’re used to right now. (Companion post focusing on teens)
Like the day a child is allowed to bike to the end of the street, walk around the block, or ride the local bus, this can be exciting, but also anxiety inducing. As parents and caregivers, we know there are going to be times they won't call when they're supposed to, they go further than they’re allowed, or don’t come home on time. Then we’ll need to have another conversation about trust and set some new temporary boundaries while we rebuild trust.
From the time babies start crawling, children and parents are navigating the balance between freedom to explore and the safety of adult presence, knowledge, and experience. Trust and open communication are key to gradually allowing children more freedom.
Trust needs to be scaffolded. One layer at a time with the boundaries we judge as best for our children now. Just as we give our children permission to travel further from home on their own as they prove themselves ready, we can build trust in their electronic and online use.
Open communication helps us have the conversations we need to have to help our children grow emotionally, understand our values, understand how to keep themselves and their friends safer, and develop their own values. When we show we care, that we’re here to listen to their feelings—including what they wish they were allowed to do—we’re showing we’ll be here when they have something they really need to share with us.
So, all those conversations about the YouTuber they’re watching or the video game they’re playing is building the trust and skills everyone needs for when something uncomfortable happens. One thing I know, from conversations with UU teens, is they’ve all seen and experienced hard things online. Remember just as an adult’s Facebook feed looks different from someone else’s, the online world our children and teens see can be very different from what we see when we log in.
It can help to have a technology agreement: what technology can be used, when it can be used and for what, and what conversations need to happen before a child adds a new app or game to a device. This agreement will be different for each child; it’s not about what their friends are doing, but what they’re ready for: One child’s self-esteem isn’t bothered at all by Instagram, another wants to be on it for the wrong reasons. One teen is able to put the phone down and go right to sleep, another needs the phone in a communal basket before bed time or they’re up all night.
Trust, Tech Use, and Faith Formation
This is all faith formation. It doesn’t happen all at once. It happens one small conversation at a time as our children grow to adults with the responsibility to navigate the world. And it’s not just their faith formation, it’s ours. Clarifying our own values, listening to their insights, wrestling with why we’re uncomfortable with something--this is how we grow, too! We say our children are our teachers, which is so often true. And also true, that because of our love and care for them, we grow in ways we might not even have chosen.
Conversations to Have and Things to Consider
Be explicit about trust. Ask them what trust means to them, then share what trust means to you. Be clear about what helps your trust in them grow. Consider what kinds of trust you’re talking about: Trust that they’re sticking to the agreement? Trust in their judgement? Trust that they’re safe? Trust that they’ll bring anything concerning to you? And think about what kinds of trust they need from you.
Have a process for picking new apps, video games, even movies. Particularly as you build trust, download the app yourself. Read some articles about it. Play the video game with them. Talk about the content of the movie. Knowing enough about what they’re doing gives you enough information to start conversations and ask questions.
Remember to think about video games as well--many video games include in-game chat that connects players around the world.
Another reason to not allow children to install their own apps and games is to screen them for malware and viruses.
What if they see something that makes them uncomfortable?
Make sure your kids know you’re always there to talk about anything uncomfortable. Tell them there are things on the internet that make you uncomfortable and you know it’s easier to be uncomfortable together than alone.
Pornography is usually the first thing that comes to mind for parents. Remember most children see sexually explicit images and video well before adults think they do. Assume your child will see sexually explicit media—accidentally or on purpose—once they’re surfing the internet on their own. They may or may not find that uncomfortable—they may be curious, interested, or trying to answer their own questions. It’s better to talk about it sooner than wait until they find it.
Before you talk with your children about sexually explicit media, it can be good to work through some of your own feelings about it. The resource Parents as Sexuality Educators has some questions to consider and talk about with a co-parent, friend, or group from your congregation.
Remember sexually explicit content isn’t the only uncomfortable thing on the internet—there's also racism, violence, sexism, and more. As parents we can’t protect them from all this forever; what we can do is prepare them before they experience it and keep them company as they learn all the ways the world isn’t the world we wish it were. We know that talking about race with all our children starting from when they’re young is critical. It’s the same with all of these conversations. It’s not about one big conversation, but many small conversations over the years. And the very presence of these things on the internet gives us both reasons to talk and many examples to explore.
The more you and your kids talk together about what you both notice in movies, apps, and books and ask them what they notice, the more practiced they’ll be at noticing what’s uncomfortable and why. When you notice something, ask them what they noticed and then point out what you noticed. And if you’ve been having these conversations already, it will be easier for them to come to you. Everything from pointing out implicit racism to noticing violence is both important faith development and for building this kind of trust.
Make an informed decision about blocking software. There are a variety of blocking software for different apps, browsers, and devices. Research thoroughly before using one: none will block all content you may wish your child not to see; all will block content you do want them to have access to; none will work on all apps and platforms; children can look up how to disable them; if your child can install apps, they can install those that access the unfiltered internet; and they may also be able to get on someone else’s device, use the neighbor’s wifi, etc.
However, such software may be a good part of your partnership with your child if your child understands why it’s there, especially if the software helps them feel safer from content they also don’t want to see. Know that these kinds of software have a history of blocking content older children and teens should have access to—especially about being queer. It’s very hard, from a technology perspective, to block porn and allow age appropriate information around topics like sexuality or even breast cancer. In addition, these companies have always been under pressure from right wing family groups to view all issues of sexuality, queerness, and any related body function as inappropriate for children.
But using software isn’t the only option. You might consider giving younger children access only to apps you can control and to save internet searches and YouTube for family time. Gaining access to new apps for slightly older children may come with the agreement that as the parent, you get to check their use of that app from time to time.
Talk to them about who they’re communicating with. With younger children on Facebook Messenger for Kids, you can see everything about their communication. As they grow, this can be a delicate balance as teens want some degree of privacy. But just as you’d ask who they’re hanging out at the park with, ask who they’re connecting with online. Make room to care about their online relationships—these relationships are just as important to them as their in person ones and have as much power both to harm or heal.
Talk to them about how they and their peers are behaving. What does compassion look like online for your kids? Speaking up when someone is being harmed? Consent? Are they paying attention to “where” they are online and who is listening? It might not all be behavior that’s your favorite and that’s okay. Still, it’s one thing to make body function jokes in a group of peers where everyone agrees, it’s another to do that in a space visible to a larger audience.
We know that with so much online time, internet bullying is way up. Your child may be observing behavior that makes them uncomfortable. They may even be participating in it. Or they may be being bullied. Being bullied has a tremendous negative impact, and it has led to deaths by suicide. Children and youth need to know what to watch for and how to get help from adults.
Bullying: participating in it or being bullied is a reason to cut back on how much internet access a child or teen has. While it can feel like it’s punishing the victim to remove access, it may be needed to protect your child and help rebuild their self-esteem. It can help them be able to tell their friends “I can’t be on that because my parents won’t let me.”
What to do if they’re uncomfortable? With an adult? With a peer?
Talk about what behavior you expect from adults in their lives. Be explicit. The UUA recommends that UU adult leaders never be in one-on-one chats online with youth because we have seen how those chats can be a place for gradual grooming by sexual predators, even in the UU religious settings in which we expect safety. We want our UU children and teens to see what safe behavior looks like by adults.
Talk together about how they might know an adult’s behavior isn’t right: Feeling uncomfortable is a big clue. Other clues are if the adult asks them to keep a secret, or if the adult is bothering them by sending them messages. Sometimes adults will do something slightly uncomfortable and they might wonder if they're being overly sensitive, but coming to talk about being uncomfortable is still important!
This is one of those times to be sure they know you won’t punish them if they come to you having made a mistake or gotten themselves into a situation that’s uncomfortable or wrong. You want them to come get help.
To get ready for this conversation you can read up on how online grooming works so you understand the way an adult will work to establish an online relationship with a child or teen that they don't want to reveal to adults in their life.)
Remind them that saying something to you, about peer bullying or adults making them uncomfortable is important both because you care about them and want them to be safe and because sometimes taking action can protect other children or teens from going through what they’ve gone through. Ask them if there’s anything you can do to make coming to you easier. And listen. Sometimes we’re doing something, often out of our own anxiety and worries, that makes us harder to talk to.
And help them list some adults they can go to if for some reason they don’t feel comfortable going to you first. Showing your children you trust them to talk to another adult and that you trust other adults will help build the layers of trust.
What if a peer isn’t safe?
Peers are often the first to notice when a friend is at risk from self-harm, drugs, bullying, emotional or physical abuse, or grooming by a sexual predator. Remind your children and teens to tell a trusted adult if another child or teen is hurting. Tell them it's not tattling or ratting out a friend; rather, it's acting responsibly to keep their friend safe.
Yes, it’s time for another conversation around consent and body parts. Be clear and tell your children and teens that sometimes adults or peers, ask children and teens to take pictures of themselves naked. You can compare this to someone touching them without their consent and tell them this is important not to keep a secret. (The FBI reports an uptick in this kind of activity right now.)
Kids need to know something about sexting before a peer suggests the activity. Tell them sometimes sharing naked pictures is a part of adult sexuality and there’s nothing wrong with nudity or taking naked pictures. Except that there are laws against taking pictures of naked kids to protect kids from exploitative adults and so taking pictures of oneself or receiving pictures of other people naked is a form of sexual activity that’s for grownups.
Just like every other aspect of sexuality education, age appropriate information is key. Kids who have thought about this before it happens will be able to better respond than those who haven’t.
None of this is easy. But in my experience of parenting and mentoring young people I’ve found few things are easy. My first job out of college was as the Director of Technology for a small girls’ boarding school, so I got the task of talking about the risks online with several hundred girls. While the technology has gotten more complex in the two decades since then, the issues are very much the same. And while there are very scary stories out there, the vast majority of kids and parents manage to get through this part of contemporary coming of age with smaller bumps and scratches instead of anything traumatic. And along the way most parents find their children, teens, and young adults teach them a lot too.
Commonsense Media has a lot to offer. Here are some good ones: Commonsense Media’s App Reviews , Resources for Families During the Coronavirus Pandemic, Guide to Parental Controls, and How to Talk to Teens about about Dealing with Online Predators
Psyche yourself up with this really fabulous and funny Ted Talk! “It’s Time for the Talk” by Julia Sweeney
This New Zealand ad campaign encouraging parents to talk with their children is both hilarious and helpful. Could even be an icebreaker to watch with your child or teen.
Parents and Caregivers as Sexuality Educators session on pornography has good questions to explore as you get ready to talk about sexually explicit content with your child.