It didn’t take long for my kids to discover that there is a great big world wide web. By first grade the words google, mine craft, and youtube were in their vocabulary. By the third grade, they wanted access like I had wanted a cabbage patch doll. And they wanted it now.
As technology changes at lightning speed, it’s taken me a while to get my bearings. How would we navigate this new territory? It was way past monitoring screen time.
As I prayed about it I felt God whisper to me “it’s an ocean. Teach them to swim.”
And our strategy formed. I sat down my oldest at age 9 and told him that the internet is like an ocean - big, deep, and full of things that he couldn’t defend himself against. As his parents, we wanted to teach him to swim and because we loved him there was no way we would drop him off in the middle of the atlantic without a boat, life vests, or knowing how to swim.
So we would start in the shallows.
Swimming lessons -
Basic lessons about internet usage are important. Don’t assume that they know things because they use the vernacular. We had to explain that Google is not a dictionary. Or that just because you hit delete doesn’t mean it disappears.
Learn about undertows -
Undertows are currents that pull you underwater. We’ve all ended up pinning something on Pinterest and looked up two hours later. For kids, lots of the games and social media are designed to hook them and some will even penalize them for leaving. Talking about the mesmerizing nature before they get sucked in assists awareness and has helped my kids separate when their time is up.
Have Fun! -
Remember how you used to run around the neighborhood playing Cops and Robbers? Or set up a huge fort for a game of War that would never materialize? Some online games and activities can serve a similar function for elementary schoolers. Just as a game of King of the Mountain would be talked about amongst kids all day when you were a kid, now kids talk about what they built on Minecraft or what they saw on YouTube.
Remember FOMO? It's real, people. Help your kids out and let them be a part of the community that will naturally take place. Find safe ways to let them interact with friends online or to talk about their progress in a game.
Check the weather and set a course -
Before sitting down at the computer teach them to think about (and even say aloud) why they are on it. Is it to play a game? Or perhaps things have been a little rocky and they are looking for an escape. Are they curious about something and hoping to gain some information? Homework? Boredom?
Keeping a clear plan encourages thoughtfulness. It’s not bad to get on the internet when you’re bored, but it may be easier to drift into some rocky seas. Homework is a great reason to be on the computer, but if they find themselves off course somewhere it’s good to have that jolt “oh, I was supposed to be …”
Time to move a little deeper?
When my kids will thoughtfully explore ideas in multimedia and demonstrate that they can find an escape route, I am more comfortable letting them have freer access to the internet. Messages in popular songs are great for this. We don’t need a deep conversation - just a chuckle together about something silly in a lyric. For example, the words in Brave by Sara Borealis are “say what you wanna say, let the words fall out …” I asked my kids, “Is it really wise to say everything that does into your head?” My 4th grade daughter replied, “no, but the song is saying that if you are being bullied it’s important to speak up.” It’s encouraging to know when they can recognize and discuss content. Trust begins to build.
We started by allowing hardly any access to the web. Literally 3 webpages (Webkinz, their elementary school page, spelling city). As they started to show maturity in other things (discussing book, music, and television content) we began to allow more websites that they specifically requested (minecraft, chess.com, other tetris-y game sites). YouTube will most likely be the very last site we give unrestricted access to, though we definitely show them fun videos. Last night we all laughed ourselves silly watching Brodie Smith play ultimate frisbee.
Be a lighthouse -
Seeing something offensive, following curiosity too far, being fooled by advertising - all these are common in the ocean of the internet and difficult to completely insulate your kids from. When they run into these storms they will need a lighthouse to find their way home. Be that lighthouse. Be a safe harbor where conversations are open and forgiveness and grace are served.
If they don’t seek out help and need to be pulled into safety, don’t overreact, don’t feel that all is lost or hopeless. With Jesus there is no such thing as hopeless. There is redemption and restoration. King David declared God could make him white as snow after adultery and murder. Take this opportunity to help them learn about the ways light always overcomes the darkness.
Lock your front door
Put a filter on your internet. You can establish it to block adult content easily and freely with opendns.com. The filter can be as tight as you want and will work on any devise that uses your internet.
You can customize each child's access to their needs with separate logins. Don’t be afraid to use parental controls.
Restrict access at friends/neighbors
It’s not safe at friends houses for kids unless you have had detailed conversations with their parents. Lots of families have no filters applied to their internet and are naive to what their kids are into - or perhaps their kids are already expert swimmers while yours are still learning.
Be a snoop
Remember that they are kids and need you to help them if they are in a dangerous situation. Occasionally check their web history. Set up their chat/messaging and email so that a carbon copy is sent to your accounts.
Watch the online chats
Kids like to chat online with each other during games. Check the usernames and find out if they are people your kids know in real life if the conversation is anything more than basic communication. Make sure that your child can access the "this is offensive" button that is on nearly every game. Then snoop. Get on their login and read the chats. If nothing else you'll start to get comfortable with the new-fangled slang kids use these days.