How can I
- set appropriate limits for my family’s online activity?
- make sure my child is using the internet and social media safely and appropriately?
- talk to my child about how to stay safe online?
What Are the Pros and Cons of Internet and Media Use?
A common challenge facing parents these days is children’s access to online content and media through computers, cell phones, gaming consoles, and other electronic devices. Many students have now experienced online learning and have some knowledge and skills to find their way around the internet. In addition, more and more children are getting cell phones at a younger age. Regardless which form of media a child is using, parents of children at all ages need to pay attention to what they are watching and have guidelines and expectations for media use.
Experts say there can be both benefits and risks to Internet and media use for children. A lot depends on adults and children working together to agree on rules, establish a healthy balance of activities, and set appropriate limits and boundaries for media use.
This chart lists some of the potential benefits and risks of internet and media use for children and tweens.
How Do Elementary Aged Children Spend Their Time Online?
The Internet provides endless opportunities and resources for information, entertainment, and communication. Elementary aged children are likely using the internet to game, stream movies, or video chat with friends and family. As this age group gets older and closer to middle school, they may also become interested in social media.
Streaming TV and Movies
As for adults, watching TV and movies online is very popular among children. Video streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have turned smartphones, tablets, and laptops into portable TVs. Children have access to a huge variety of TV shows and movies of their choice, including some that are geared toward mature audiences.
The numbers are increasing each year, and the age of children who play online games is getting younger. After setting up a free account, users can access a wide variety of games designed for various age groups and maturity levels. Gaming platforms allow direct messaging and voice chat, so players can connect and socialize with friends, as well as strangers.
Older children are often exposed to and interested in more social media. For more information on this, please check out this page or go to comprehensive list of social media platforms (including recommended age ranges).
Why It Matters
There’s no doubt digital technology and devices play a starring role in our lives these days. The Internet provides round-the-clock access to an endless supply of human connections and content for our own education, entertainment, or escape. Even many adults have trouble knowing how to avoid the pitfalls and set limits for themselves!
Unlimited access to this vast virtual world has definite risks for children. Whether intentionally or by accident, they can find and share topics, information, images, and other content that can cause confusion and harm. They can connect with others, including strangers, who may be unsafe. And unlike face-to-face interaction, communicating through an electronic device can make people feel bolder and more likely to interact in ways that may be hurtful or inappropriate.
Because of their natural stage of development, there are several factors that make the Internet and social media especially attractive and risky for many older children. Towards the end of elementary school, they:
- are at a stage of life when they are discovering, creating and shaping their identity.
- often crave connection, acceptance, approval, and attention from others.
- are often focused on physical appearance, body image, and being attractive to others.
- are developing curiosity and interest in mature topics, including sexuality.
- may be unaware of risks of sharing private and personal information, and other related dangers.
- may be unlikely to set limits for themselves.
Just like in the “real world,” there are things parents and caregivers can do to protect their children from risks and harm online. Start with educating yourself, communicating with your child about the risks and benefits, and agreeing on consistent rules, and a healthy balance for online activity.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula for deciding the right amount of media use for any adult, child, or family. A “family screen audit” can help family members work together to determine the balance and limits that work for them. Doing this together with all members will create a sense of inclusion and not single out younger children for their habits.
Sample questions for a family screen audit.
- How much TV do you watch per day?
- How much time do you spend on the computer for study or for work?
- How much time do you spend on your cell phone or mobile devices each day?
- How much leisure time do you spend online versus offline?
- Do you ever misrepresent yourself or your life online?
- What are the top 3 activities or sites you spend time on online?
- Do you feel you are getting enough exercise and time outdoors?
- While you are working or studying, how often do you allow yourself to be interrupted by social media (responding to texts or private emails, checking social media apps).
- How early in the morning and until what time at night are you usually online?
- How often do you use the Internet to procrastinate or avoid other obligations?
- What are 4 activities (2 indoor and 2 outdoor) that you would do with the extra time if you were online less?
- Which social media apps do you use? What do you feel are the pros and cons of using social media?
Once the audit is complete, the family agrees on a set of screen time and technology rules. The suggestions in the following section can help you support your child’s safety online, and mentor them around the benefits and risks of media use.
You may choose to create a simple screen time log book or tracker, and have family members log the type and duration of their screen time over the course of a week.
Connect & Communicate:
Recognizing that the internet and social media are a part of life for some older children and will increase as they move towards middle school, it’s important to help your child understand there are risks along with the benefits. As parents and caregivers, it can be challenging to bring up this conversation without seeming judgmental or hypocritical. After all, most adults spend time on screens and use media themselves.
Start the Conversation
Invite the family to try the “family screen audit” in the previous section: I’d like to be more aware about how much time we spend on screens. Will you try this exercise with me to help us understand our habits?
Focus on goals for spending time together: I’d like to spend more time together as a family at home. Let’s put our phones (ipads, computers, TV) away after dinner and shoot some hoops.
Ask questions to find out what they already know: Have you talked about online safety and cyberbullying at school? What have you learned about?
Focus on Safety: I want to make sure you’re safe online. Can we talk about the social media apps you’re using?
Share real information: I read an article about girls and social media. / I saw a news report about using cell phones before bed.
Find out how to have conversations and help kids develop healthy screen time habits through Common Sense Media. This page is titled Parenting, Media and Everything In Between (What Parents Need to Know).
Setting Screen Time Limits
Once you’ve opened the conversation and completed a family audit, you can start discussing changes in habits and setting limits. You may want to include the following in your discussion:
- how much screen time is allowed per day
- how much gaming or TV is allowed during the week and on the weekends
- whether cell phones and computers are allowed in bedrooms
- whether to establish times where screens aren’t allowed (e.g. at the dinner table, no cell phone during homework, when guests are over, or in the morning before school or work).
Once all family members agree on the new “rules,” try them out for a week and then check in to see how everyone feels. What changes has everyone noticed (both positive and negative)? What is / isn’t working? What needs to be modified?
You may get some pushback from younger family members at first. Support the transition by replacing screen time with activities and other things that interest them (sports, hobbies, travel, shopping, etc.), and remind them that less screen time will benefit them in the long run.
Online Safety Guidelines to Share with Your Child
If your child is doing anything online, it is wise to have some guidelines for them and for yourself. Here are a few to get you started. You can also see the Continue Learning section below.
Contact & Collaborate:
- Find out what your child’s school curriculum provides for online safety and digital citizenship programming. Attend any parent-focused meetings, as they may share useful information.
- Find out what other parents are doing and what they do and don’t allow. See how they keep tabs on their child online.
- Local youth-serving organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Club, may offer after school programs in digital citizenship and online safety.
- Help your child develop a network of trusted adults–relatives, family friends, coaches–and encourage your teen to go to them if they need help or have questions or problems.
- Outschool.com has courses for parents and children to learn more about internet safety. Check out these examples for kids 6-11 years old. https://outschool.com/search?age=5%2C6%2C7%2C8%2C9%2C10%2C11&q=internet%20safety#abl449uvss
Explore these resources to learn more about online safety and media use.
Net Smart is a resource that has videos you can watch and discuss with your child. All the topics revolve around internet safety. The site also has studies and research for internet use and screen time that parents can read up on.
Safewise allows you to set parental controls on computers, tablets, and cell phones. On most devices, you can set times when the Internet can’t be accessed, block access to inappropriate or adult content, as well as require parental permission for downloading apps via automatic text message to your phone. There is also a range of parental control apps available for purchase: https://www.safewise.com/resources/parental-control-filters-buyers-guide/
Common Sense Media: Lessons by age for helping students understand the importance of internet safety. https://www.commonsense.org/education/articles/23-great-lesson-plans-for-internet-safety
Raising Children: Internet Safety for Children 6-8 years old https://raisingchildren.net.au/school-age/play-media-technology/online-safety/internet-safety-6-8-years
Internet Matters: Expert Advice on Gaming Addiction https://www.internetmatters.org/hub/news-blogs/expert-advice-on-gaming-addiction-in-young-people-and-children/
Cell Phone Readiness
Understand (website): A quick reference to help determine if your child is ready for a smartphone. https://www.understood.org/articles/en/checklist-signs-your-child-is-ready-for-a-cell-phone
Child Mind Institute (website): When Should I Get My Child a Phone? https://childmind.org/article/when-should-you-get-your-kid-a-phone/
Washington Post (article): Is Your Child Ready for a Cell Phone? Independency Milestones that might help indicate if they are ready. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/12/17/is-your-child-ready-cellphone-look-these-independence-milestones/
Today’s Parent (article): An Age-By-Age Guide to Kids and Smartphones https://www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/an-age-by-age-guide-to-kids-and-smartphones/
Podcast: Defending Digital Advice for Parents https://defendingdigital.com/podcast/
Their Own Devices Podcast https://thepodglomerate.com/shows/their-own-devices/
The American Academy of Pediatricians offers resources to help families develop a Family Media Use Plan: www.healthychildren.org/MediaUsePlan