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5 Tips for Setting Limits on Kids' Cyber Behaviors

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Concern about Internet safety is pervasive among parents of young teens. We fear many things: exposure to pedophiles and predators; cyberbullying and taunts; an indelible record of immature decisions; and introduction to damaging content that desensitizes youth and models unhealthy relationships.

It's scary out there, but being afraid isn't helping any of us. So, here are a few key points to consider and some practical suggestions for parents of young teens.

1. Your kid needs you to be the parent, even if you are uncertain about how best to handle the challenges of parenting. This means building a relationship based on unconditional love and your steadfast commitment to responsibilities. Setting appropriate, albeit unpopular, limits about electronics (including phone apps) and access to the Internet might temporarily upset your kid, but being a good parent is far more important than being liked right now.

All of us live with rules, and learning what happens when you break the rules is important training for life. Making and enforcing rules for protection is not oppressive, and neither is having access to kids' Facebook and other accounts an invasion of their privacy. There is no real expectation of privacy on these sites (even if kids think so); so, if they don't want you (or anyone else) to see what they post, they shouldn't post it.

2. As a family, set expectations regarding use of electronics and acceptable Internet activities along with corresponding consequences for breaking the rules. If your kids follow the rules, you give them the privilege of using their electronics; if they break the rules, they lose those privileges. This is a contract, based on cause and effect; it is not arbitrary punishment. They can understand this.

3. Recognize that kids' brains are different from ours, and so when they don't see your perspective, it's possible that they really don't have the capacity to understand it. Even if you explain the dangers, they might not have the cognitive or emotional capacity (yet) to refrain from exploring sexually explicit or unmonitored websites (like ask.fm). These sites can open them up to predators or bullying, but a young teenager's brain might not "understand why." And, if they don't "buy in" to your reasoning, you can't rely on "reason" to keep them safe.

Consider: would you put a toddler in a room with lots of shiny toys, say "don't touch" and leave for 15 minutes, expecting the kid to refrain? Seriously, you should probably be concerned if the kid doesn't touch the toys. This situation is a set up for failure. So is giving a young teen unrestricted access to the Internet and saying "I trust you to stay away from certain sites even though your friends might go there." Maybe your young teen has the control to stay away. But, if not, he/she is likely to feel shame and fear the loss of your trust and love. This sets a bad precedent for both of you.

4. Use developmentally appropriate strategies that establish parameters which structure and support healthy behaviors. Don't just rely on their capacity to restrain themselves. For example:

  • Make them use their electronics in the family room (kitchen etc.). This way, they know anyone can glance at the screen in passing. Don't hover and read your kids personal interactions, but do watch if they hide their screens when you appear. If so, find out why.
  • Park electronics in the family room overnight; it will also help them sleep.
  • Become and stay tech-savvy. Get their passwords. Parental controls are good, but also actively check their electronics from time to time. Keeping talking about cyber behaviors, you'll know if/when something isn't right.

5. Finally, consider your own mental and emotional state. Staying calm is good for everyone, whereas "losing it" doesn't help. Set rational limits and enforce appropriate consequences compassionately. It's all about learning. Teach yourself to take a mindful breath to remain present and be more effective. Pay attention to what happens, day by day, but remember that it's the long journey that really matters.