How an internet safety expert (really) talks with her tweens about internet safety
Even when you’re the expert in the room, talking with kids about being safe online takes a little creativity. Here’s how one expert handles it.
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“Why can’t I have TikTok? All the other kids have it.”
I look up at my son and hold back my sigh. It is literally the third week in a row that my 11-year-old is looking at me with these sad puppy dog eyes and asking for access to something that is on our no-fly list.
We discussed this as a family. We discussed why underage kids should not have access to age-specific accounts, until they reach that specific age. We came to a family agreement. We checked all the boxes, and here I sat (again!) having to be the bad guy, having to say no while explaining the reasons and countering some pretty wild tween logic.
“But if the parents of the other kids say it’s ok, why can’t you?”
Let’s put this conversation on hold for a second and let me explain the irony of this situation. You see, I’m a digital parenting expert and my passion is supporting families in just these types of situations.
I have spent the past 10 years immersing myself in all things legal and digital. I practiced law in California, taught law in Paris, and studied topics concerning child online protection, social media platforms, games and devices. Parents and caregivers expect me to have the answers to all their digital questions.
So let me give it to you straight: Parenting a child in the digital age is an adventure in creativity, resilience, persistence and a whole panoply of other skills. And the best part is that you already have the most important skill in the mix— the ability to listen and ensure an open dialogue with your child. You want your child to grow up healthy, happy and able to take advantage of the opportunities available today—both in real life and online.
But sometimes, in the heat of the moment, or the middle of the week, it just boils down to taking a deep breath and repeating yourself for the umpteenth time—but with a twist.
Back to my tween tale.
I calmly explain to my son that I understand how cool that platform is and even consulted a parent’s guide or participated in focus groups about online safety for that very same platform. I also explain how I’m teaching him to be responsible online, to know how to follow rules and how to be an upstanding digital citizen— when I’m not peeking over his shoulder.
Now here comes the twist. I tell him that I understand that he wants to feel included and that his friends are forwarding TikTok videos to him and he wants to watch. My creative solution: Forward the videos to his older brother (or me) and let’s watch them together. We will then use those videos as a teaching moment on what is cool and not so cool to post.
And who knows, my son may even share some of these online safety kernels of wisdom with his pals.
I can promise you that even though I am the expert in the room, I too am sometimes frustrated, sometimes anxious, sometimes wondering if this is the right strategy. I am also reassured when I remember that the digital age is presenting families with some incredible situations—with challenges and opportunities.
We are the first generation of parents to deal with these issues, which is why I give myself permission to get creative, to ask other parents what works for them, to read up on best practices and to fine-tune my own family media strategies. And time and time again, I see the proof that having what I call connected conversations with our tweens, teens and young people is the best tool in a digital parenting arsenal.
There are a myriad of issues facing our teens and tweens today, as they connect with friends, do their homework, create videos, flirt with their latest crush, and digital parents can always show up and listen, ask thoughtful questions, provide examples on familial expectations and values when online, and more.
Here is my shortlist of connected conversations starters to help you get those crucial conversations going:
When you begin a conversation, make sure that everyone is fed, rested and in a relatively good mood. Imagine you’re sitting at the table and sharing dessert. Why not ask for a speed round of “Top Three Cool/Not-So-Cool Things To Do on (insert social media or gaming platform).” Or maybe instead of starting the dinner conversation with “How was your day?” change it up and ask, “How was your online day?”
Listen, really listen, to what your tween or teen is saying, sharing and feeling. And demonstrate your upgraded brand of empathic listening by repeating back what you think you heard and asking if that’s what they meant. For example, “You’re frustrated that your friends have TikTok, and you don’t. Is that what you’re saying?”
Try to understand what else may be going on, and keep in mind that being a part of online activities with peers is today’s way of connecting and hanging out. For example, try to relate it to your own experiences as a teen or tween. Growing up, much of your interactions happened at school, at a mall, in a park. That’s not reality for most kids today.
It is ok to change your mind after an engaging conversation where you as a family have weighed the options. When my youngest wanted to play the same game that his older brother was playing, we sat down as a family and played the game together. My eldest showed us all how to play responsibly, report and mute other players. After a few rounds, when I saw that my youngest wasn’t affected by cartoon violence and could engage in strategic thinking and action play, I said yes, with time limits, of course.
Your tween/teen may be more likely to respect your guidance when you show them that you respect their opinion by saying things like, “I understand how cool technology is. I see how fun it can be to be on social media. I think it’s great that you get some fantastic online opportunities. Yes, I probably would have wanted to play such and such video game when I was your age too.” Then you can follow up with, “But how can we create some rules that we both agree to?”
Ask other parents about what works for them. You are not alone in this.
For more, explore the SID resource gallery. Find information sheets on conversation starters and even games, which are available in a variety of languages and for a variety of age groups.