There is a lot of talk these days about free-range parenting: When should I let my kid do X, Y and Z? Can they go to the park, walk to school, or go to the store on their own? But what about digital free range? How much freedom should you allow your kids when they are online, on social media and on one of their many accessible screens?
There is free-range parenting, and then there is the abyss. Some folks I encounter seem to equate the concept of free-range parenting with a total lack of boundaries, rules or control. Most of us are working toward raising a good grown-up (as opposed to raising a good kid), but leaving kids to their own devices, learning experiences and explorations in all situations is baby-and-the-bathwater stuff.
I put technology, specifically, in the same category as automobiles, weapons, power tools, cooking, medication and money. When it comes to these categories, if you screw around too much or don’t know what you are doing, really bad things can happen. These situations (and their consequences) are potentially different than, say, walking home from school.
Even the most hardcore, free-range parent is not going to give a kid a set of car keys, a chainsaw or even a cookbook and oven, and say, “Go, have fun.” I do not think that we should be doing that with the Internet, either.
Our kids’ experience of the Internet is different than ours in a few notable ways, one of which is that for them, the Internet has always been there. To them, the Internet is a grown-up; the Internet knows what it is doing, and the Internet can be trusted. The reality, of course, is that the Internet is not that much older or more sophisticated than a lot of the kids we are talking about here.
Another difference is that most of the adults reading this article had the good fortune of learning manners and social skills before mass digitization set in. We were able to overlay those skills onto our online lives when the Internet hit. Our kids don’t necessarily have that pre-screen foundation; many of them have been, literally, raised with technology by their sides and in their faces.
Our children’s first experiences with screens and tech almost always involve entertainment: movies, books, video games, silly selfies and YouTube videos.
But there comes a point when kids need to be clearly walked through a transition process so that they can begin looking at the Web as a tool, not solely as a toy. This is more obvious when we are talking about the difference between Matchbox cars or “Grand Theft Auto” and a real automobile. But that line between silly, inconsequential fun time and eventually interacting socially and sexually with other real-life humans can be very thin, very fuzzy and, sometimes, invisible to kids today.
Age-by-age tech safety guidelines for even the freest-ranging of kids:
Before age 5, kids should be coached on the basic care and handling of devices, such as learning to use two hands, what cases are for, that screen protectors are your friends, and that devices don’t go into the bathtub with you.
By 6 or 7 years old, kids can start having more big-picture conversations with their parents about important tech-related topics, such as daily limits on screen time. I encourage families to even have a couple of tech-free nights each week.
By age 8, children should know a version of this online reality (you can even try saying it this way): “There are people out there on the Internet who do weird, silly and crazy things. Some of them even take pictures or videos of themselves doing things with no clothes on. If you see something like that, let me know so we can talk about it.”
At 9 or 10, they may want to communicate with others via texting, IM-ing (instant messaging) within an online game or even email. Regardless of how closely a parent chooses to monitor these interactions, they should be limited to school friends and family members.
When kids are around age 11, it is due diligence for parents to begin modeling asking for consent before posting pictures of our kids on our social media. These discussions might sound like: “That face you just made was hilarious—are you OK if I put that picture on my Facebook page?”
When kids become tweens, they will want to start splashing around in social media and/or getting their first smartphone. This is where things become more nuanced and complicated.
Five things not to do:
- Ignore the lure of technology.
- Refuse to participate. It’s OK to interact online with your children. “Free-range” does not need to equal avoidance.
- Allow your kids to figure out the intricacies and social norms of texting and social networking on their own. We don’t do that in restaurants, do we?
- Fail to stay up to date and aware of what is happening online.
- Only worry about others being inappropriate or rude to your children but ignore how your kids are behaving toward others. Even the best of kids can be mean to others by what they say (or don’t say).
Passive behavior can be just as distressing to some people as aggressive behavior.
Five things you can do:
- Give kids guidelines about how and with whom they interact online. As parents, we need to remember that our kids must develop manners in their online lives just as they do in their “real” lives.
- Encourage them to create rules around who they friend and follow online; for example, only those whom they have met in real life, or only those for whom they would buy a birthday gift.
- Friend/follow them. If your kids are on Instagram, you be on Instagram. If they do the Twitter thing, you do the Twitter thing.
- Be mindful of the “like” culture, and make sure your kids have ways to boost their self-esteem other than how many followers or online friends they have. Talk about this with them, IRL.
- Discuss how they handle bullying and witnessing issues — do they have lines they will not cross? When they do stand up for someone online? When do they block or report such incidents, and how do they plan to do so?
Free-range parenting is a legitimate choice aimed at building independence and life skills, but remember that the talk about looking both ways before crossing the street happens before we let them go running off to the park or a friend’s house. There are online equivalents to that conversation, and we can do our children a big disservice if we forget that.