Susan Michaels* is raising her two kids, ages 5 and 9, like it’s the '80s. With no access to social media, restricted access to the internet and a ban on touching Mom’s cell phone, her kids are growing up in a home largely disconnected from the online world and all its minute-by-minute, at-your-fingertips appeal.
“Few other parents in our social circles seem to have the same views we do,” she says. “They either don't think about or don't care about their kids having open access to the internet. Or they think their kids would never look at anything inappropriate online. [But] part of my job as a parent is to protect my children's eyes, ears and hearts from content they're either not prepared to handle yet or that could be inappropriate and even damaging.”
With kids as young as 8 or 9 years old walking around with internet-linked smartphones, accessibility is no longer a barrier to exposure. It’s easier than ever for kids to download and log into any number of apps, programs, games and social platforms. It seems like the internet is literally everywhere, from our phones and our vehicles to our classrooms and even our kitchen appliances.
Given this increase in access for children of all ages, what are modern parents supposed to do? Can they truly protect their children from the online world, and more importantly — should they?
The internet is a tool. It was designed to support us: to make our relationships, our jobs, our communication, and our access to information easier. However, the internet isn't a simple mechanism — it’s a complex one, full of power and potential.
Most parents would agree that power drills aren't suitable for toddlers; that third graders shouldn’t operate heavy machinery; that 14-year-olds shouldn’t drive motor vehicles. These are all tools and safe usage of them requires a skill set that young kids simply don’t have. They are lacking the developmental and emotional maturity to know when and how to use these tools so no one (themselves included) gets hurt.
The internet isn't as obviously dangerous as a power drill or a car but it still requires maturity to be used responsibly. But many parents don't think about internet safety as a skill their kids need to learn — or a responsibility that should wait until their kids are mature enough to use it. Or they bemoan their kids' constant access to screens but assume it's just part of being a kid today.
Natasha Burgert, M.D., a pediatrician, disagrees. An advocate for the Wait Until 8th organization, which empowers parents to delay giving their kids smartphones until at least eighth grade, worries about these assumptions.
“So many parents feel like they are being consumed by technology, and they have no choice but to allow it in their lifestyle. They seem to be giving up, throwing up their hands, and letting their children dictate what is the ‘new normal,’” says Burgert. “The decision to delay a smartphone is not an easy one, but as we learn more about the consequences of smartphones and brain development, it is a decision that could literally save their life.”
The decision to delay a smartphone is not an easy one.
Burgert isn’t being dramatic: In addition to the potentially damaging content kids might encounter during unsupervised time online (early exposure to pornography, cyber bullying, chat room predators and social media addiction), there’s a whole host of other health problems now being associated with the digitized world. Burgert sees it all, up close and personal, in her day-to-day work as a pediatrician.
“What parents need to understand is that a child's brain is not an adult brain. Children physically do not have the ability to understand, comprehend and negotiate much of the digital space,” she says. “Kids can't look each other in the eyes anymore. They can't have a conversation with an adult without being distracted by pings.”
Despite the concerns about young children and media, more and more apps, games and online advertisements are beginning to target this same age group. The medical community has had to respond in turn; in 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics made concessions to their screen time recommendations to address the reality of our current digital climate. Academic research centers at colleges and hospitals are examining our universally-growing appetite for media consumption and, specifically, how this consumption is affecting children.
Kristelle Lavallee, MA, content strategist for the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Boston Children's Hospital, spends her days doing exactly this kind of research.
“We can no longer think of parenting in the digital domain as separate from parenting in real life,” says Lavallee. “As the ubiquity and adoption of technology spreads, the line between on and offline diminishes, and parents must understand [that] their role [is] all encompassing. Just as parents find safe playgrounds for their children to play in, they should also find safe spaces, apps, browsers for their children to use ... and [they] must be there to help them learn how to navigate the space and provide guidance and support when needed.”
Just as parents find safe playgrounds for their children to play in, they should also find safe spaces, apps, browsers for their children to use.
This hands-on approach means parents need to go beyond establishing screen time limits, privacy settings and parental controls. It means being an active presence in a child’s online life and modeling healthy screen habits themselves, by putting down their phones, making face-to-face connections with family and friends, and emphasizing the importance of life offline.
It may also mean a more careful discernment of whether a child has the developmental acumen to navigate the digital space. Toddlers, preschoolers and elementary-age children don’t need access to the internet. It’s arguable that even middle-schoolers don’t truly need it, either — and that we are doing them a disservice, at home and in the classroom, by allowing them such broad access to the internet.
At some point in a child’s life, though, the benefits of accessing the internet begin to outweigh the risks. As kids grow into their teens, they will have to develop the skill set needed as adults to consume technology in a healthful, productive way. When they are old enough, they will have to learn to use the tool responsibly in order to educate themselves, connect with peers, colleges or employers, and gain a necessary understanding of how the world works in this digital age.
But what if their parents have held them back? What if, like Susan Michaels, a parent has chosen to strictly limit their child’s access? A recurring concern among parents is that kids who aren’t exposed to technology from an early age won’t know how to use it appropriately — and that a long history of use, beginning in childhood, is required to become proficient.
Not so, says Lea Page, who raised her family very much offline. Though her kids, now in their twenties, grew up just as the social media era was gaining traction, she still had to make some tough choices about the access they would have to the internet. They were teenagers (14 and 16) before they were allowed to have personal smartphones.
“We waited until we thought the kids could use the phones safely and responsibly and then let them have them, without a lot of breathing down their necks,” Page says. “We never put limits or locks on access … I don’t subscribe to close monitoring. [That] doesn't really teach them what they need to know: how to be responsible using a powerful and, at times, dangerous tool.”
One could argue that this kind of freedom is a gamble for kids who have never had unfettered access to the internet before, but waiting until her kids were mature enough to understand the risks and benefits for themselves proved successful for Page. Both of her kids learned how to use the technology immediately and neither were behind their peers in skill. They even went on to have careers in the technology field: her daughter is a social media administrator and her son is in technical support.
“If my kids felt out of the loop, they never said so,” Page says, “By delaying their access to social media, they developed a host of skills and habits that will support them throughout their lifetimes. They were pretty involved in their own passions and pursuits. When they were bored, they read, created art, played outside, baked, built things. Social media is just one avenue for entertainment —and it shouldn’t be the primary one.”
Social media is just one avenue for entertainment —and it shouldn’t be the primary one.
If Page’s descriptions of her children’s free time sound like a passage out of a time-worn novel, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Most parents of this digital generation of kids grew up in the '70s and '80s, and it’s safe to say they haven’t yet cracked the code on integrating technology healthfully into their own day-to-day lives.
If parents want better for their children, it has to begin with them: They have be willing to turn off the devices and power down the Wi-Fi. They have to be willing to establish firm boundaries and actively participate in their child’s digital education. They have to be willing to fight for a nostalgic-sounding childhood for their kids that’s not only healthier, but quickly fading from existence in today’s hyper-connected culture.
“I think we have to keep our ‘life perspective’ hat on,” says Burgert. “I hope that my kids grow up enjoying their offline time more than their online time, [creating] a life where the internet supports their passionate and amazing lives, rather than needing Wi-Fi to experience reality. Wouldn't that be great?”
* Name has been changed by request.