We all know how much time our children spend online these days. Between their phones, tablets and computers, kids never seem to come up for air. A study by the Center for Cyber Safety and Education, which surveyed elementary students (grades 4-8), found that more than half (53%) of students spend two hours or more a day online doing things other than homework – and 23 percent spend more than four hours a day online!
The internet has changed how children (and people in general) interact with each other. Kids online live in a bubble of seclusion and anonymity that comes with little to no understanding of the consequences of their actions. And this reality doesn’t exist out of spite: for many kids, it is all they know. They make friends online, play online and have conversations online, all of which is okay, and we need to accept it. Heck, some of us met our spouses online, so let’s not see only the bad of the internet. But children need to understand that they can’t do and say whatever they want or ignore the consequences of their actions.
Many of the basic rules of growing up before the internet existed – such as look both ways before crossing the street, don’t talk to strangers and be kind to others – apply to life in the digital age. Unfortunately, many children are not following these principles when they’re online, yet their choices can have the same life-altering consequences today as they did a generation ago. We as parents, grandparents, teachers and mentors need to adjust to this reality, educate ourselves and set clear boundaries just like we had growing up.
Although we talk with fondness about the “good old days” when we played outside with our friends, kids today are growing up in a vastly different world. Children now interact with friends online. We used to get in trouble for not being home in time for dinner. These days, getting our kids out of the house is difficult. When we were children, we knew where we were allowed to go, who we should hang out with and when to be home. We need to establish those same rules with the internet. Adolescents need boundaries and simple guidelines to follow; challenge them with questions like these:
- “Would you say that to someone in person?”
- “How would that make you feel if someone said it about you?”
- “What would your grandmother think of that picture you’re about to send?”
- “Would you be friends with this person in the real world?”
But setting rules isn’t the only answer. While the “playground” kids play on now is different than the one we knew as children, it still can be a dangerous place, and many children (and parents) don’t realize that. Kids believe that they are safe behind their devices of choice. We need to teach them basic safety principles that will stay with them and protect them for the rest of their lives.
Children need to know that online friends are not same as real friends. They can have friends online and offline, but online friends won’t be there for them when they are sick or fall and get hurt. They won’t come to their sporting events or go swimming with them. They won’t be at their birthday parties. Only real friends can do that. Make sure they make time for both.
Kids today are digital natives. They have grown up with the internet and online games that we didn’t, so it is hard to teach them about the dangers of something we don’t fully understand. But we can pass down many of the basic principles we learned as children to our children, with just a little updating.
About the Author
Patrick Craven is a father of two and the director for the Center for Cyber Safety and Education (Center), a nonprofit charitable trust committed to making the cyber world a safer place for everyone. The Center works to ensure that people across the globe have a positive and safe experience online through their educational programs, scholarships, and research. Visit iamcybersafe.org for more information. If you have questions, please send them to [email protected].