Raising kids in the digital age is hard. Living offline used to be the norm if you grew up in the 70s, 80s, or even the 90s. Having a cell phone wasn’t a possibility and certainly not the norm. Facebook and Twitter were barely (if even) ideas and MySpace was not even a major social platform by today’s standards.
No one could have predicted the vast digital landscape that would be constructed or the challenges it would bring parents raising kids in the digital age. Now, it seems everything is online: schools, shopping, even paying taxes. On the one hand, this digital transformation has offered kids an unprecedented ability to talk to anyone around the world. They are growing up with more cultural knowledge than any previous generation was able to, they have instant access to information, and there’s never been a more effective way to teach inclusivity. These are all amazing things – and they also make it so much more difficult for parents.
So, how do parents strike a balance between encouraging children to socialize in the massive digital world that’s been created, while also protecting them from people who use these apps for predatory means? Raising kids in the digital age means not only becoming digitally savvy yourself but often walking a pretty tight line between giving kids access to the digital tools they’ll need to survive and keeping them from being exposed to the inevitable ick the internet offers.
From Stranger Danger to Ride with Strangers
We’ve always thought it was a bit ironic that we grew up with our parents teaching us about stranger danger and now our kids literally use an app to call up a stranger, get in their car, and get where they need to go. The concept of stranger danger has changed, with people meeting, talking and building friendships, and playing games – all online. Some of our kids’ best friends exist only in a virtual world to them – they’ve never met in and don’t plan to meet in person.
We can’t take that away; especially post-pandemic, people – including teenagers and young adults – are starving for human interaction. While we can’t allow digital connections to completely replace socialization in the real world – our kids are touch starved, we can teach them how to have healthy relationships online, which can be modeled during in-person interactions as well.
So what’s the solution if “stranger danger” isn’t a logical strategy anymore?
Teach Kids to Recognize Strange Behaviors Instead
We already know how to do this. We start teaching our toddlers early – your private parts are your private parts. You don’t have to do things that make you uncomfortable. We teach them the appropriate ways to touch and be touched, and most importantly, we teach consent. This is the approach parents should try to use with internet safety.
If kids know how to identify catfishers or toxic behaviors from the people they talk to, learn to set boundaries online as they can in person, and recognize the power they have to block and walk away from toxic people, it can empower them to have a healthier experience.
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
It’s still important to keep an open line of communication with your child. Adolescence is such a rollercoaster of self-discovery, it may sometimes seem like you’re living with a complete stranger. But it’s during these times more than ever that children want to know that they’re being listened to and that they’re cared about.
- Ask questions about the games they’re playing or the friends they’re making online.
- Take a vested interest in the things they’re doing, even if you don’t quite understand all of it. If they have a place to talk about the things they’re doing online, they’ll be more likely to share when something doesn’t seem right.
- Don’t just turn them loose to create accounts on any app, but don’t completely isolate them from the internet either. Provide guidance and boundaries for how they use apps, which apps they use, and what information they should and should not disclose.
- Be mindful of changes in behavior that might indicate they’ve gotten in over their heads with someone online.
Kids today are learning to have an inclusive and communicative relationship with the world, but unfortunately, people haven’t found a way to prevent predators from also going digital. Parents can do their part, though, by teaching their kids to have healthy relationships with the people they meet.
Lead by example, and let them know what a positive connection looks like, but also teach them the warning signs for negative behaviors and relationships. Not only are these skills that will keep them safe on the internet, but they’re also skills that will lead them into healthy relationships as adults. The internet may not be the new, scary place it once was, but the technology is still young, so if we can foster safe connections right now, it will build skills your kids can use throughout their lives.