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How to be a parent in a digital world and not lose your mind

Some thoughts on staying tech-informed so you can be a good guide to your kid’s online life.

Randy Holmes / Disney Channel / Getty Images

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

Last week was time for me to explain to my child that the internet isn’t a safe place. It wasn’t pretty. My 9-year-old daughter has been going online on a parental-controlled browser and to play multi-gamer Minecraft with her friends, but nothing else — or so I thought.

Last week, she mentioned playing with these “friends” on an app that lets you create a family of dogs. I remained calm as I explained we had discussed this issue before, and that she was not allowed to go online because people on the internet are not always who they seem to be, and they might ask her questions that are personal.

With a somewhat annoyed tone, she replied that she is not naïve, and that when “this boy” asked her how old she was and where she lived, she did not reply.

That is when I freaked out. I took a deep breath and started explaining.

Just because you are not face to face with someone doesn’t make it safer

While not being physically in the same room or playground might mean that you do not get punched or pushed or mocked, it does not mean they cannot hurt you. Just because you do not see them, it does not mean they are not real. That was the easy part.

“But Mom, they are just kids like me!” my heartbroken daughter whispered. That was when the hard part started. Explaining that people online can pretend to be kids and they might be interested in her the way grownups are interested in each other was the hardest thing I ever had to explain. Much harder than explaining where babies come from.

Within a couple of minutes, my daughter went from my sweet little girl to the potential victim of an online predator. I know I might be overreacting. I know there are more genuine kids online than there are predators, but there are also numbers. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately one in seven (13 percent) youth internet users received unwanted sexual solicitations. One in 25 youths received an online sexual solicitation in which the solicitor tried to make offline contact.

So, forgive me, but it’s my baby, and I am not taking any chances. As much as I think she is too young to fully understand what I am talking about, it is my duty as a parent not to scare her but to make her aware of the risks. This is no different from telling your children they should not talk to strangers the first time they are somewhere without you at their side.

Technology alone is not enough

There are many risks our children are subjected to when going online. Some involve their information and data, and others involve them as a person. In a way, I look at the former as security risks and the latter as safety risks. While tools can help with many security risks, in my view, only education and awareness will help with safety risks.

A key part of this education is to help kids understand that the internet is not just magic. There is a real human behind anything that happens online, whether that presence is direct or through software programmed by a person. Educating, not scolding — it’s important and, of course, challenging, that my daughter feels like she can come to me and ask questions.

The good old days of loading an antivirus app and restricting access are over. Phones and tablets have changed that dramatically, and although parental control tools for these devices have been growing over the past few years, they concentrate on the web versus apps which makes the whole “being safe” more complex. The small screens these devices have also offer less visibility to parents compared to a console game played on the TV in the family room. This means we cannot just “fix” it with technology. We need to take an interest. Whether we monitor the apps our kids use or we vet every app before they use it, it is up to us to keep up with the whole process.

I dropped the ball. My daughter knows she needs to ask permission before purchasing any app. When that happens, we go through the reviews together to evaluate how good they are, and read the description to better understand what is behind the catchy name. But I never thought about vetting the free apps she downloads, as we have set up an age filter for the apps she can access. It goes without saying that I do that now. Clearly, the age filter helps with content appropriateness, but not necessarily kids’ safety.

Monkey see, monkey do

Fortunately, I do not have to worry about social media yet. At 9, my daughter does not have a social media presence, other than what I post about her. And this is, of course, a whole different problem. Because she sees me sharing what we do on Facebook and “talking” to people I do not necessarily know on Twitter, she might think it is okay for her to do the same. As in real life, kids do pick up social cues from us without necessarily having all the information to make an informed decision. So, for some behaviors, leading by example will suffice — “Don’t text and drive,” for instance. For others, we will need to educate once again.

I now ask permission before sharing something about her, including writing this article. I explain that, very much like what you say in real life, what you post has implications. I explain why I post, what I post and more importantly, I explain why I do not post certain things — well aware not all my decisions are actually foolproof.

Learn so you can teach

Being a parent in a digital world is not easy but one thing is certain — it will be a lot easier if we as parents are informed and up to date with what children do. Our kids are growing up in a world full of screens and where social media rules. As parents, we need to make sure we are a step ahead when it comes to technology. If we think today is scary, we should try and imagine what it will be like when our kids will live in a VR world we do not have access to. While we can ask content providers and app store owners to be more transparent and accountable, the buck stops with us.

Carolina Milanesi is a principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc. She focuses on consumer tech across the board; from hardware to services she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, Milanesi drove thought leadership research; before that, she spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as VP of consumer devices research and agenda manager. Reach her at @caro_milanesi.

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