Protecting and supporting your child in the digital age
We are living in unprecedented and heavy times. With our children home from school, some risks have decreased, and some new risks are present. In particular children are spending a tremendous amount of time online, on social media, and playing online games.
First, this is not a lecture about reducing screen time! Technology can be a great asset in terms of connecting with others and providing access to valuable information. Unfortunately, it also can be a method that predators use to victimize children, and particularly with the recent tragic events, can overwhelm children’s coping skills.
So what can a caregiver do? First, treat your child’s online environment the same way you treat their physical environment. Know where they are going, how they are getting there, and who they are hanging out with. It is not an invasion of privacy to ask your child who they are texting, who they follow on TikTok (even watch some of their favorite TikToks with them), or who they play against in online games. Educate yourself about the most frequently used apps for kids and teens and learn about their privacy settings and controls (commonsensemedia.org and netsmartz.org are great resources for this).
Second, make sure there are rules around safety online, just like there are in person. Make it clear they are not to connect with strangers (in particular, no private messaging with people they do not know in person). Be explicit that it is not safe to send personal information (like your address, school, or when you are going out of the house). And while it may be uncomfortable, be explicit that it is not safe to send revealing photos to anyone. Sending them digitally even to friends means others can easily get access. Remind them technology use is a privilege that comes with maturity and trust and let them know you are a resource if someone asks them to break one of these rules.
Lastly, talk with your child about the emotional impact of what they are seeing currently and of their digital interactions. Recent media coverage and social media accounts showed graphic videos of a senseless death, as well as subsequent reactions that include strong emotions and, at times, violence. Many children are reacting with fear, sadness, and confusion. Take the opportunity to ask your child what they are seeing online and what their friends are saying. Additionally, within social media there is tremendous pressure for “likes,” regardless of the content. Make sure your child knows they are more than their social media account and have value beyond online reactions. Give them the opportunity to share their feelings with you. Feeling sad, nervous, angry or confused about what they see online is natural. If they are targeted or bullied by others, this also can lead to tremendous sadness. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and reach out to a therapist for advice and assistance. Many of the wonderful therapists in our area are offering sessions via telehealth.
Finally, model good boundaries with technology use yourself. Try to have some “screen-free” times when you can talk with your children “the old-school way.” You might be amazed at how much your children respond to face-to-face attention.
Carole Swiecicki, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and the executive director at the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center. She is also a clinical assistant professor in the MUSC Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and on the boards of the National Children’s Alliance and South Carolina Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers.