Every day we are bombarded with images and messages everywhere we look—TV, movies, advertisements, radio, books, magazines, Internet, YouTube. It is a challenge in today’s fast-paced world to keep our focus on what is pure, lovely, and admirable (Philippians 4:8). As much as we try to be gatekeepers for our children, it is almost impossible to protect their innocent minds if they use the Internet at all.
It is important to talk with your children early and often about how they can stay safe when they use a computer or smart device. And don’t assume that because you monitor your children’s online activity at home that they will not be exposed to inappropriate material while at a friend or family member’s home. The more you talk with your children about Internet safety, the more prepared they will be when (not if) they are faced with pornography or other inappropriate material.
Here is how I teach my children to be safe online and use technology wisely.
Please do not assume that your child will not encounter pornography or other dangers just because he or she is young. Studies indicate that as many as 1/3 of children under the age of ten has already been exposed to pornography. If your child has access to a mobile device, there is a chance he will be exposed at some point! Even your three-year-old playing on a phone at a restaurant is at risk. I don’t want to be an alarmist or sound like I’m using a scare tactic, but the reality is that we live in an age where the Internet is becoming increasingly intertwined into our daily lives.
You don’t need to spell it out in detail with a younger child. I use the same principle I do with every other topic I discuss with my children. I give them just enough information to satisfy their curiosity and enable them to understand. A younger child will need a less in-depth explanation than a teenager would. The point is to encourage good communication with your children and talk openly about this (and other) difficult topics.
Teach them about Internet safety
Discuss Internet safety early and often. If you have younger children (preschool through grade school), I recommend using The Safe Side videos to teach them about stranger and Internet safety. These videos are engaging, age-appropriate, and open doors for conversations.
I try to find ways to organically talk about the topic—a news story on CNN10, something one of their friends said, a book or article I was reading. When I allow the conversations to flow from our experiences, it didn’t seem like a big deal. It is just another way I train my children to grow up in the 21st century.
Here are a few of the topics I have discussed with them:
- Why they shouldn’t share their private information (address, phone number, when we would be on vacation, our weekly schedule, etc.) with anyone not considered a trusted adult.
- The importance of not opening an email if they don’t recognize the sender.
- Only visit trusted websites.
- The dangers of pornography and what it is. Two resources have been very helpful in this:
Establish good technology habits
Teaching your children about Internet safety is not enough. Possibly even more important is helping them establish good technology habits. Let’s face it, we all struggle with this. I try to set a good example for my children which is one reason I turned my smartphone into an anti-social phone. I need boundaries for myself because the draw is just too strong many days.
This will be a process, just like transferring responsibility for anything else. I do it gradually and try not to micromanage. We start by setting some ground rules we can all follow such as:
- Read digital and physical books.
- Do not use a phone/tablet during meals.
- Engage in physical activity and creative pursuits before spending time on technology.
- Try not to use your phone (respond to messages, make notes, etc.) when you are having a conversation with others.
- Turn off notifications except for phone calls and text messages.
- Use the Do Not Disturb feature during times of focused work, meal times, and overnight.
Set limits on technology use
With some aspects of technology, we have limits established such as watching one movie per week as a family, watching YouTube videos during lunch one day a week, and no screen time (even for reading) after 8:00 p.m. Otherwise, I try to help them regulate their own technology usage. They will need to acquire this skill to be productive so the sooner they learn it, the better equipped they will be. Plus, they need to use the computer or a mobile device for school work, to read or listen to a book, or connect with friends so setting time limits for their usage is difficult.
This does not mean they have free reign of technology use. If it seems they are on their devices too much and have not been physically active that day nor done something creative and/or productive, I do reserve the right to restrict their usage. And if they are using technology at an inappropriate time (such as reading a book on their phone when they should be getting ready) they will lose the use of their phone for the day.
Have safeguards in place
Even if we successfully teach our children how to use the Internet wisely and they develop good technology usage habits, it is important to have safeguards in place. I have unwittingly opened websites I wish I hadn’t! There is just too much at risk to not have safeguards in place, for us and our children.
One safeguard we use is to “dock” computers, phones, and tablets in a common area at night. The computer “docks” in my office when it is not in use. Their phones/iPods are to be “docked” in a basket on the kitchen counter at night. If their phone/iPod does not find its way to the basket at night, they lose the privilege of using it the next day. This has happened once for each of my girls. It was a painful lesson to learn but helped them establish a good habit.
The other safeguard we use is Covenant Eyes, which we use on our desktop, laptops, and mobile devices. Services include filtering so you can block inappropriate items and accountability reports to monitor online activity. We have the service enabled for all of our devices for myself, my husband, and our children. This is not a substitute for talking with your children about appropriate Internet usage and how to stay safe but is a double layer of protection.
Covenant Eyes works well most of the time. There have been a few instances of Covenant Eyes blocking appropriate sites and difficulty logging in at hotels. While this is annoying, we recognize the difficult task of filtering out the bad from the good. Their customer support has been fantastic to help me add approved sites and adjust the settings.
Taking the first step
If you do not have a plan in place for teaching your children how to be safe online and how to use technology wisely, I encourage you to begin today. Like myself, you may need to start by looking at your own technology usage and make adjustments so you can model good habits. Next, I would suggest you consider enabling Covenant Eyes on your devices. Then, start having conversations regularly about appropriate technology use and how to stay safe online. There’s too much at risk to not make this a priority.