Pass the Knowledge: Meet the Pioneers of Digital Parenting

My daughter turned 14 last November. As I reflect back on her childhood, I tend to do what many parents do: compare her life now to how my life was as a teenager then-my then seems like a different planet. To say parenting and childhood have changed over the past thirty years is an understatement. As I felt her move around in a mini-ocean that took over my body, I could never have imagined parenting would be entirely different than it is today. My generation of parents is the first in history to raise children with two lives: a digital life and the reality we live in today. We are learning as we go along. This is new, and yes, this is scary. But don’t freak out.

We are the pioneers of digital parenting.

Parents with younger children reach out to me in worry and concern. Every day, I learn a new lesson and try to navigate a map that changes by the second.

To put some of these concerns at ease, I’d like to share what I’ve done and what has (so far) worked for our family. Things may change by the time this article reaches you, so please leave comments and questions below. I will do my best to answer.

Background Knowledge: A national survey reported teenagers spend an average of eight hours a day using various forms of media. According to The National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, 77% of all kids between the ages of 8–18 have cell phones. 87% of teenagers between 14–17 years-old own a cell phone, and 31% of these older teens have smartphones. Social media has become so influential in young lives; we can now assure it is a source of addiction for many (kids and adults).

Smartphones are dopamine devices.

Communication is Key: The moment your child comes to you and asks to join a social media network, set the stage for open communication immediately. For example, I told my daughter: “If you have something to say to the world, remember that your parents are part of that world. If it’s okay to share with everyone else, it’s okay for us to see it too.”

Basically-we’re keeping an eye on you kid.

Set Expectations and Boundaries Immediately: For any application or social media outlet, check for age requirements and read through terms of service. I was not comfortable with many of these applications. I chose wisely. The minimum age to open an account on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat is 13. YouTube requires account holders to be 18, but a 13-year-old can sign up with a parent’s permission. Share the age requirements with your child because this takes the pressure off you as a parent and puts it back on the app (when your child asks too soon). Create rules, write them down and refer to them as friendly reminders when your child forgets (or says s/he forgot-that will happen often). You can also make a social media safety contract for both parents and kids to sign. Scary Mommy has an excellent contract you can use for teens.

Consistently remind your child that nothing gets erased from the Internet.

Be strong about setting expectations early on; it only gets more complicated as kids get older.

Start Small: When my daughter wanted to join Instagram, I told her we would start small. For example, instead of launching an account with thousands of pictures of herself, I told her she could have an account and take pictures of objects or the environment. She ended up making a photography account her first year, and it turned into a fun art project. I did not want her to begin with a profile full of selfies. Yuck.

Openly Monitor and Check In: Make it clear that as a parent, you have every right to monitor and check in on your child’s social media accounts and online behavior. Let your child know you will be doing so from time to time. You will get a feel for their digital lives, but you must monitor closely-especially at the beginning. It is important to give kids the freedom they need, but it is your job to keep them safe. Online concerns vary from privacy settings, sharing information, posting inappropriate images, online bullying and checking in on their social lives and how they interact on conversations.

Quite often, kids will copy and paste text messages and share conversations with other children. This behavior can be devastating to your child because it conveys a lack of trust as they build their friendships and relationships. Also, it doesn’t hurt to encourage your child to pick up the phone and talk. In my home, we encourage phone use all of the time. Today, kids communicate through text messages, which can lead to misunderstandings, arguments and a lack of developing authentic and meaningful relationships. I’d start talking about dating (or the lack of courting)-but that’s an entire series in itself.

The Power in Their Pockets: Keep in mind that our children are walking around with immense power in their hands. Teach them to use this power wisely. If you see they post something inappropriate, sit down and talk about future ramifications. Bring up the contract. Remember, the key to all of this is constant communication. If you inhibit them from using social media entirely, it is very likely they will use it behind you back (this makes the situation worse).

Be the Example: You may be addicted to your digital devices. And you have to admit it. If you are addicted, be mindful and aware of your behavior around your children. Out to dinner? Put the phones away. Talk to each other in the car. Listen and sing to music. Tell your kids to look out the windows and daydream. And you must do the same, too. Do a digital detox. Model the appropriate behavior. They are watching and learning from you all the time.

Remember, You are Doing the Best You Can: You may find there are times when you feel lost and confused. For example, I cannot ask my parents for advice because they never experienced these type of parenting challenges. Empathy lacks in this department. Do your best, because that is all you can do. You will raise happy, safe and healthy children. Reach out to friends for support. Talk with other parents. Do your research.

Most of all, follow your instincts.

Learn: Watch this CNN Special Report and Documentary: Being Thirteen: Inside the Secret World of Teens.