This holiday season, many children will unwrap electronic devices, including smart phones and video game consoles that were at the top of their wish lists. Parents may be wondering what they can do to be sure that their children are using the devices responsibly, but our elected leaders aren’t making it any easier.
With much discourse and policymaker attention on how kids and teens can best use their online devices, it’s hard to know the right approach. While some policymakers call for the government to restrict what young people can do online, parents, not bureaucrats, are best equipped to make sure their kids stay on the digital nice list.
When parents give their child a new device, they should first consider what restrictions they plan to put on that device and how they plan to discuss appropriate behavior online. For parents who are unsure how to have those conversations with their child or what they should think about, organizations including the Family Online Safety Initiative or ConnectSafely have useful resources.
Here are some suggested tips.
One: Many devices have easy set up for parental controls. This includes tools like time limits or “ask to buy” to make sure a child is only using the device at the rate or cost the parent intended. In some cases, a parent can limit use of the device to “only on wifi,” turning off the wifi capabilities of a toy or covering built-in cameras on devices (or even toys) to protect a child’s privacy. This will allow a parent to better supervise the device’s use when it’s connected.
Two: In addition to using the device itself, parents may also want to set specific limits for certain apps like social media or games. Many services have a wide range of built-in parental controls that can range from supervision of an account, allowing parents to see what their child or teen accesses, to less invasive controls like “nudges” to take a break or explore another topic. For example, Meta’s Instagram has a Family Center that can assist parents with setting up the tools available to help their teen experience the platform with varying levels of freedom.
Three: In addition to in-app and device tools, there are also third-party apps and extensions parents can use to limit what their children can access online or on a connected device. Depending on the age of the child and device, different services may better serve a family’s needs. In many cases, parents may find themselves combining different services to meet the specific needs of each of their children when it comes to using technology. There are many different ways parents can guide their children’s online experience.
While at times it may seem overwhelming, this range of options shows that no one size fits all families. As parents often experience, the tools that are most useful may even vary from child to child in the same family and evolve as the child ages. A 13-year-old boy may need time limits turned on to ensure he doesn’t spend all day gaming while his 10-year old sister may need a website blocker to prevent her from stumbling into age-inappropriate content on her new tablet.
Tools currently available can empower families to make the decisions that are right for each child. But recent proposals like the Kids Online Safety Act and the recently enacted Age Appropriate Design Code in California could actually make it more difficult for young people to use the internet in productive ways. And it could negatively impact adults, too.
When it comes to keeping kids safe with their new tech, parents—not policymakers—are in the best position to decide what’s right for their children.