When our first daughter was only a few days old, my husband, sleep-deprived, yet totally in love with our new addition, looked at me and said, “I’m already mad at us for when we give her a cell phone.”
As a mother and family law attorney who works with families in guardianship, adoption and custody situations, when advising parents who are no longer together or advising relatives who have sought temporary or permanent custody over children in their family, electronics in the hands of young people is an issue that is discussed very often and very early. What is the appropriate age for a child to have a phone and should the device have internet access are two of the most common questions asked. Parents want to maintain a connection between homes but how exactly does that work, especially with young children?
The truth is children today live in an electronic age like the world has never seen. Like my husband, most of us realize we cannot completely restrict our children’s access to these devices, the internet, social media, etc. Many of these tools are very beneficial to our children’s growth and eliminating them from our homes altogether could actually be detrimental.
But what is appropriate in the hands of a child? In order to answer that question, we must educate ourselves on the harms and take a more active approach to keep our children safe. As an attorney, a concerned parent and an individual who believes that the lack of laws to protect our children on the internet is becoming a public health crisis, I want to help.
Every family, situation and child is different, and this is not intended to be legal advice. However, these are recommendations I believe we can all follow not only to keep our children physically safe but also to protect their minds and mental health.
The two guidelines go hand in hand and are the toughest but the most important. They are also the most intangible because they cannot be accomplished through one or two simple steps but instead call for a deeper commitment to our children’s growth and development. In order to protect our children on the internet, we must:
- Focus on the relationship first. By developing a strong relationship with our children, one that is built on communication, honesty and trust, we can impart to them the knowledge necessary to analyze difficult situations and make informed decisions. When that relationship is strong and they feel empowered and trusted by us, when faced with difficult situations, they are more likely to either trust the strong inner voice we have cultivated or they will come to us rather than seek advice elsewhere.
- Attempt to empower them through discussion and information. I already tell my children all the time that my number one job is to keep them safe, a phrase I began using after following child psychologist @drbeckyathome on Instagram. Keeping them safe does not mean I put them in a bubble and shield them from all the pain and hurt of this world. Instead, keeping them safe means I empower them to face this world head-on by informing them in an age-appropriate manner. As a family attorney who works with families from many different backgrounds, it seems the children who struggle the most are the ones who feel unseen. Children want to feel heard.
- Do your research. There are so many applications, social media platforms, chat rooms and ways in which our children are connecting to others and obtaining information online. Anytime you start to think you are a few steps ahead of your children, they are probably already several steps ahead of that. Technology is always progressing and the younger generation is naturally going to pick it up faster. Therefore, we have to stay vigilant and continue to educate ourselves or we will never understand or be equipped to handle what our children are facing.
- Set age-appropriate screen time limits. The American Academy of Pediatrics supports setting screen limits for children of all ages. Most of us have heard it’s important to set screen time limits with our children and probably already attempt to do so with our younger children. I say “attempt” because we’ve all been living through a pandemic. It hasn’t been easy. Some days we deserve a pat on the back for just surviving this time with children. Of course, as children get older and become more and more independent, it gets harder and harder to set those limits. But screen time limits are important for teenagers too and it’s never too early to establish a plan in your home. Too much of just about anything can be bad for you, and I’ll just say it: scrolling the internet is downright addicting. Some of you may wonder whether you should just keep your children off the internet and social media altogether. While that may be the right answer sometimes, and technology breaks are very healthy at any age, I firmly believe as soon as we make something “a forbidden fruit” to a child, it has the potential to become all they want. And we all know that when some children want something, they will find a way to get it with or without our blessing. Therefore, I find it’s more effective to limit and monitor exposure rather than attempt to eliminate it entirely. It might even be a good idea to let children help establish the screen time plan as they get older and show more maturity and independence.
- Turn off notifications. Disabling notifications can help children and adults alike cut back on screen time. After watching the Social Dilemma (if you haven’t watched it you should), I turned off all notifications on my Facebook account. I thought hard about deleting my account completely, but I’m a firm believer that most things can be used for good, if used in moderation. A few days after making this change, I realized I had barely looked at my account. I had not let the occasional, “I really wish we could be on that trip right now,” or “How does their life always look so organized,” creep into my head, and I actually felt happier, more present and more engaged with my children and family. I felt more joy. I bet a lot of you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, I challenge you to try it.I had no idea that such a small change would make such a large impact on my mental health. I am confident and satisfied in my life, my path, my family, my career choice, my home, the trips we take and so much more. But unknowingly, when my phone would buzz or ding with a notification, I would feel compelled to pull it out and start scrolling. Even if the initial notification was harmless, I would find myself disconnecting from human beings right in front of me, and instead, I was looking for connection or validation from something that just isn’t real most of the time. I know I can’t be alone in this.I started to think about young people online. If it’s easy for the mental health of an adult to suffer from the comparison culture that social media perpetuates, then what about our children who are in a much more vulnerable stage of their development? Young people are more stressed out, anxious, depressed and striving for unrealistic images and goals than ever before. I’m not going to say that it is all because of social media, but I do believe it plays a huge part. Our youth is spent searching for approval, validation, the right path, and so much more. Now, social media is causing young people to covet likes and shares like they are real human interactions. I know this probably sounds very doom and gloom. Social media can be used for good. But many of us are ignoring or are just simply oblivious to the harm it is also capable of inflicting.
- Monitor privacy settings.
- Do not chat with or accept friend requests from people you do not know.
- Do not post private information about yourself.
- Limit some applications to supervised times only. These four preceding guidelines are all about protecting our children from predators online. While they may seem straightforward, they are very important. Legal cases are often built upon information shared through the internet. My good friend Julie Moore is an occupational therapist and mother to four lovely girls. In a conversation recently, she told me that applications with vanishing content are just impossible to monitor. That couldn’t be more true. Such applications make children more likely to engage in dangerous behavior online because there is some sense of security in believing “no one else will see this.” When it comes to the internet, we should just assume that nothing is private, no matter the settings. Our children are growing up in a society that tends to overshare, but some information is best kept offline.
- Lead by example. While I’ve chosen to list this one last, don’t let that diminish its importance. This one is right up there with the first two guidelines. As parents or caregivers, we are the very first influences in our children’s lives. They learn everything by modeling after us. If they see us constantly surfing the internet on our phones, posting on social media or seeking validation through a screen, they will learn to do the same. It takes a conscious decision to put down the devices and choose to be present. At some point, our children will leave our homes and we will wonder whether they are equipped to handle the world. While it is full of a lot of magic and wonder, it is also full of a lot of harsh realities. It is our job as parents to prepare our children for all aspects of the world. While preparing our children to have a safe presence on the internet only scratches the surface, what’s truly important is that we are having this conversation. The law may be behind in providing these protections, but we do not have to be.
Virginia has been a licensed attorney in Oklahoma City at Magill & Magill since 2014. She practices in the areas of divorce, custody, guardianships, adoptions, estate planning and probate. For personal questions or legal advice, reach her at 405-367-3933 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Morgan Deepee Photography