Teaching young kids to use technology safely

I had two experiences last week that helped me realize how early we need to start teaching our kids to use technology safely.

My youngest daughter Meadow is 8. She does not have a cellphone, text or use social media. She does have an ipad though, which I had set up as securely as possible, and thought we were all good. (Click here to read how you can do that on your devices too.)

However, as often happens to me as a parent, something eye-opening happened and I realized she was more than ready.

First, Meadow came home from a play date and told me she was excited because she and her friend talked to “Batman” while playing Minecraft. I was busy cooking dinner so my first impulse was to say, “Oh, that’s nice.” But I made myself stop what I was doing to find out more. When I dug a little deeper, I realized she and her friend were chatting with a stranger. Even though she reassured me that he was not a “Bad Guy,” I asked her to show me her ipad so I could see how the chat feature works. I discovered she was free to type anything she pleased. (Lots of kids games have limited chat features, with pre-written choices for conversation.) This sparked a conversation on why it’s not safe to talk to strangers online and how the internet is not a safe place to make friends. At 8, she was just excited to have the honor of talking to “Batman.” However, she didn’t realize he could be someone else (which call me crazy, I’m guessing he was).

The second incident happened a couple of days later. Even though Meadow doesn’t have a cellphone, she has recently started using Facetime and imessage with a good friend on her ipad. Since this is her buddy, it didn’t occur to me to talk to her about cyberbullying or the public nature of messaging.  Once again it was a lesson for good ole’ mom on the importance of talking about these issues before they become a problem.

Meadow is an animal lover and she and her friend got the idea it would be great fun to have pet pigs.  Meadow mentioned that her friend was mad at her because she wanted to be the only one to have a pig. Again, my impulse was to say “Oh that’s too bad.” But instead, I asked to see her ipad. I was pretty shocked when I saw the nature of their messages. What started out as a fun time chatting about pigs quickly turned into a mean-spirited conversation. Her friend was REALLY mad at her and was letting her know it! Meadow actually handled it very well, and didn’t get nasty back.  I quickly realized though that she was more than ready for training on texting safety.

I was waiting to teach her once she had a cell phone and a digital social life, but this was a mistake. She is ready now.

If your child is online or has any kind of digital life, I highly encourage you to talk about the following:

  • Don’t chat with strangers online.  It’s too risky and just not safe. Instead of trying to figure out whether or not someone is who he or she claims to be, a blanket rule is safest. (Let’s face it; chatting with Batman is pretty appealing to an 8 year old!)
  • Handle conflicts in-person. Even after I called Meadow’s friend’s mom to talk about the upsetting messages, the girls wanted to Facetime to talk about it. Instead we had them wait and talk in-person. This situation was the perfect example of how kids say things digitally that they would never in person.
  • Discuss how digital conversations are public. When I first asked to see her messages Meadow said, “No, they’re private.” It was the perfect time to sit down and explain that actually no, they aren’t. The messages could be copied and forwarded to anyone. She hadn’t realized this (and I hadn’t taught her.)
  • Stay in the loop. As parents, we are busy. However, it really doesn’t take very long to sit down and check-in with our kids. In both of these situations I was focused on something else and my initial impulse was to brush it off. However, I am SO glad I didn’t. I would have missed  discussing both a safety issue and a really important teachable moment, that sparked some great conversations.

It can be a challenge to realize when our young kids are ready for this type of training. I felt relieved that Meadow’s first problem happened with a good friend. They both learned a lot, on a small scale. However, it did surprise me that she needed these lessons already. I encourage you to get these conversations started.

At 8, Meadow doesn’t need to know everything a preteen or teen would about technology. However, she’s definitely ready for the basics.

Have you had similar situations with your younger kids? How have you handled them and what have you learned? I’d love to hear your stories. In this ever-changing digital world, we can all learn from each other.

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