How (and why) to get your child to spend time online

Child behind the wheelThe number one question I get in my parent workshops on bullying and Internet safety is how to effectively control the amount of time kids spend online. From the time they are old enough to swipe their sticky baby fingers across a touchscreen straight on through high school, parents worry that way too much time is spent in front of the screens of various devices.

Worried moms and dads ask me if it’s possible their kids may be addicted to the Internet or their games. They want to know how to help their kids control the amount of time they spend online. And sometimes they want to know if it isn’t better to just ban the Internet from their homes altogether.

I understand their concern. As the mom of three tween/ teen girls, I live it every single day. And as a consultant on bullying, I’ve heard some hair-raising stories about the trouble kids can get to online.

Despite all this, I’m a firm believer that we need to get our kids online – safely, responsibly, creatively and productively – from a very young age.

My favourite analogy for making sense of all this is the driver’s license your child can get when she or he turns 16 years old. Imagine your child comes home from the license bureau with their freshly minted license and asks for the keys to the family minivan. In the middle of a snowstorm. At night. To go to a party with four of their closest friends.

You would be forgiven for balking. Where to start? You would worry about their lack of experience on the road. You’d take into account the still-developing good judgement of a teenager. You’d worry they didn’t yet have a firm grasp of the rules of the road. You’d fear the terrible driving conditions. Perhaps you’d worry about peer pressure, about whether there might be alcohol consumed at this party, about kids racing each other. It would be hard not to imagine other drivers on the road losing control, and a million other details.

After all, it takes time and experience to learn how to handle a powerful vehicle on the road, never mind in bad conditions. There’s a reason young driver’s get a learner’s permit first, and need to have an adult in the car for the first couple of years. You need to practice things like left turns in traffic, managing slick roads and parallel parking. You don’t want your child to get hurt or hurt someone else, so you devise rules, guidance and supervision until they gradually accumulate enough experience on the road before you hand them the keys without your heart in your mouth.

You get where I’m going with this, right?

We need to get our kids online when they are young because we need to give them years of experience, guidance and supervision to be able to safely and productively handle the most powerful communication in the history of humanity. They need our help to learn the rules of the road, to deal with the risks as they come their way, to find the interesting, creative and amazing places on the Internet so they don’t waste their time on passive consumption of low quality pap.

If we just ban the Internet outright while our kids are young, they never get to learn how to do all this in safe, supervised ways. They don’t get to spend time accumulating the experience the need to be good digital citizens. That means not just staying safe and acting responsibly, but also learning how to integrate use of online tools into their lives, curate a digital footprint that will one day get them into college (and get them a job).

Want to know more about Digital Citizenship? Check out this website for a great overview of the concepts, and check out this recent webcast to see how one forward-thinking school board in the Montreal area has implemented its practices into its curriculum from kindergarten through grade 11.

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