The frenzy over Momo is dwindling now, and most people are now aware that it is a hoax (and not a new one). Still, there is scary and inappropriate content all over the internet. The most commonly shared solutions to keep our kids safe from online horrors include: lengthy lists of apps children shouldn’t have access to, detailed instructions for setting up parental controls, and tightly restricted access to smartphones and other devices. But before we ban YouTube from our homes entirely, or store the iPad in a safe, let’s pause for a moment. There are many legitimate reasons to set limits on social media and internet access, but panic and fear aren’t among them.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security.
Hot on the heels of any viral internet scare, you will find an onslaught of recommendations and advertisements for software that blocks inappropriate content, monitors social media activity, limits internet access, and even records keystrokes. These tools can be useful, but they are not a complete solution. The best technology will not catch everything that is objectionable to you as a parent. And even if your child has no access to devices, their friends do. And their friends’ parents. At some point, they’re going to see something you don’t want them to see.
When my oldest son was two, he was briefly obsessed with the Little Bunny Foo Foo song. I couldn’t remember all the words, so I looked for a video on YouTube. (You know what’s coming, don’t you?) We watched a few cutesy, (poorly) animated videos, singing along together, until suddenly and without warning, the sweet little forest scene turned bloody. Fortunately, I was only an arm’s length from the computer and was able to stop the video right away. But as my child gets older and moves toward independence, I will be by his side less and less. I will not be there to monitor what he sees and hears. I will not be able to press the pause button. One day, he’s going to have to figure out how to be safe on his own.
It’s not just the internet.
Exposure to scary images and ideas isn’t limited to electronic devices or to the internet. My son, now in Kindergarten, came home from school talking about a game that you play at three in the morning, and if you lose, you die. I’m sure it’s not the scariest or most inaccurate thing he’ll ever hear from a classmate.
The most powerful tool we have to protect our children is our relationship with them. Control is mostly an illusion, but influence can go a long way.
I get it; my kids are still pretty young. They don’t have their own devices or social media accounts yet. It’s going to get a lot scarier. But that’s why it’s important to focus on relationship and communication right now. That’s why it’s important to foster autonomy and critical thinking skills right now.
Educate yourself (and your kids).
Know what’s out there. Find out what’s real and what isn’t. Momo was nothing more than an urban legend inspired by a Japanese sculpture. But cyberbullying is real. Websites and blogs promoting self-harm are real. Porn is real, and your kids are likely to see it sooner than you might think. While we might avoid talking about certain subjects because we don’t want to unnecessarily frighten our children, or we think bringing it up might encourage them to seek it out, discovering it on their own might feel even scarier. The longer we wait, the more uncomfortable and less effective the conversation is likely to be. Knowledge is empowering. If your children see or experience these things, how do you want them to react? Help them prepare by coming up with a plan.
Talk with your kids.
With them, not at them. Lectures, rules, and excessive control are likely to invite rebellion and sneaking, and don’t give you any insight into what might be going on with your kid. Taking away their devices or monitoring their activity without any discussion sends a clear message that they can’t be trusted, which often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have concerns, express them honestly, and bring your kids in on the process of creating family guidelines for internet use. Yes, as the parent, you make the final call. But before leaping into total lockdown, try a, “working with” approach. Set the stage for open discussion and problem solving as a team.
Keep calm, and listen to everything.
Kids may hide things from us if they think they are going to get in trouble, or they just don’t want to freak us out. If your child does come to you with information that upsets you, do your best to collect yourself before you respond. It’s good for our kids to see we are human, but a scared adult can also feel unsafe for them, and our reaction might determine whether they continue to be open with us in the future.
Kids also may not bother coming to us if they are not accustomed to being heard. If you really want your kids to be able to tell you anything, start by listening to everything, even if it seems trivial to you. By listening to the little things, you pave the way for the big things.
It’s only a matter of time before a new (or rehashed) internet scare starts circulating. Whether it’s a hoax or a legitimate concern, take the time to pause, research, and respond appropriately before you hit that share button out of sheer mama bear reflex. Model critical thinking skills. Find out what your kids know and what’s true. Use parental control technology and hold firm limits where appropriate. And remember that our relationship with our children is our most precious and powerful resource for helping them to be safe, online and in the world.