The online world is a scary one for parents because it’s full of dangers for their kids: Predators, scams, bullies, misinformation, and even the temptation to go TMI and disclose too much personal data and thoughts to the public. After all, kids don’t have the savvy to know what’s good information and what’s junk, and they might not fully grasp the way their messages, photos and posts can live -- and haunt them -- forever.
While you can try to shield your children from these dangers for as long as possible, many online experts suggest that you’ll eventually need to educate your kids, not just shelter them. And even after you’ve educated them, the message from experts is clear: Remain a constant presence in your child’s online life and monitor what they do.
According to a recent survey from Pew Research Center, many parents do stay connected with their kids online:
- 56% of parents follow their teen on Facebook, Twitter or some other social media platform
- Half of parents know the password to their teen’s email account
- 48% of parents have ever looked through their teen’s phone call records or text messages
But surprisingly, most parents don’t use technical tools to monitor or track their teens.
- 39% of parents use parental controls for blocking, filtering or monitoring their teen’s online activities
- 16% of parents use parental controls to restrict their teen’s cell phone use
- 16% of parents use monitoring tools on their teen’s cell phone to track their teen’s location
Why monitor your teen?
Here’s something that might surprise you: The rational part of a teen’s brain -- the part responsible for making smart, well-considered decisions -- doesn't fully develop until age 25. While you’re walking around with a fully developed prefrontal cortex that makes rational decisions, your teen is still processing decisions with lots of work by the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for emotion.
Is it any wonder that we often look at a teen’s poor choice and say, “What were you thinking?” The answer is “not much.” Due to circumstances they can’t control, most teens feel their way through decisions. And that’s why monitoring their online behavior is critical: Poor decisions made today will live forever online, possibly affecting their happiness, reputation, and future opportunities.
How to keep tabs
The best plan for keeping track of your teens online involves some technical work and some good, old relationship work.
- Create an agreement. Draw up expectations about what is acceptable online behavior and what isn’t. Also, agree on how you will monitor their activities. Keep everything in the open so you don’t lose your child’s trust. Work together to create the agreement, then add your signatures.
- Use built-in controls. Set up your child with their own account on your computer. If they have their own computer, make yourself the admin. Depending on your operating system -- Mac or Windows -- you might be able to record IM conversations, set up white lists of allowed people your child can send emails to, set the machine to automatically log out your child at a certain time each day, block objectionable content and sites, or mail you regular reports on how your child is using the machine.
- Don’t forget the phone. If your child is old enough to have a phone -- say, 12 or older -- you need a clear set of policies for it. The same Internet-use policies should apply, but how can your child use the phone and text messaging? Ask your service provider what kind of parental controls their service offers, and take advantage of them.
- Follow up. Your agreement with your child should be a living document that evolves over time and as your child ages. Revisit it every couple of months to discuss what’s working and what you need to tweak -- and to refresh your mutual commitment to your child’s safety.
It’s not easy being a parent today, and it gets a lot harder once your child is old enough to be online. But lay the ground rules early, and your child will be more likely to avoid trouble -- and you’ll avoid a little stress.