What do the experts in online safety do when it comes to keeping their own kids safe online? We asked one -- Catherine Teitelbaum, chief trust and safety officer at ASKfm and mom to her own pre-teenager -- to share some parenting pointers about screen use by kids. Teitelbaum was hired by ASKfm to improve the popular social networking website's safety measures.
1. Practice what you preach.
Teitelbaum has one of those jobs where she needs to be able to respond to emergencies pretty much around the clock. That said, even she draws limits. For one, she doesn't bring her phone to the dinner table. She recently took her son and his friend out to eat. When she put her phone down on the restaurant table, the boys took it as a green light for them to do likewise. She caught herself and put her phone away. "Our kids look to us for guidance. They watch what we do," she said. If phones are verboten at your table, that means your phone too, she says.
If you don't want your kids to be one of those zombies who walk down the street never looking up from their phones, don't you be one either.
2. Draw up a contract and stick to it.
Online safety experts give a lot of weight to written contracts in which you and your kids outline and agree to the rules of their screen use.
Teitelbaum's own contract says this: Parents own all the devices and may loan them to kids under very prescribed conditions. Her son gets 20 minutes a day of screen time when -- and only when -- all homework and household chores are completed. That's it. She is, however, cognitive that different kids have differing maturity levels. When her son is older and demonstrates responsible behavior -- and understands the importance of balancing his online life with his real-life activities -- more online time can follow. But for now, the limit is 20 minutes a day.
The thing about contracts is that they need to come with consequences for being broken. Loss of future screen time is the gold standard.
3. Start not oversharing early. Really early.
Remember those adorable bare-all-in-the-bathtub photos that your mother wanted to include in the video they played at your Bar Mitzvah party? Well in the digital age, parents more than ever have to control what they share. Teitelbaum says that as a family, she and her husband "made a conscious decision early on of how much of a social profile we wanted for our children to have." Yes, it starts with the baby's sonogram, and includes her first steps and even the first-day-of-school photo.
Why? Because a child’s social media footprint starts long before they’re old enough to manage their own accounts, Teitelbaum said. "There is no right or wrong here -- it’s different for every family. For our family, we decided to limit our social media posts and images of our son so that when he’s ready to open his own accounts, his digital persona can largely be his own," she told The Huffington Post. She says there are plenty of other privacy and safety specialists who take the exact opposite approach, but for her, this is how it's going down.
So what exactly is the harm to posting a photo of your toddler with his face covered in chocolate ice cream? Technically speaking, it's not yours to share. By sharing what you think is adorable could also be embarrassing to your son. The idea is that when he's old enough, you want him to manage his own digital footprint.
Plus, we all run the risk of oversharing, said Teitelbaum. Your intentions may be innocent, but you just never know who is looking over your digital shoulder. Those posts that say "Just left for Hawaii, back in two weeks!" may make your friends envious, but may also alert the crooks that your home is now unoccupied, Teitelbaum said. Let your children develop their own social media footprint when they are older. And you just take better care of your own.
4. Don't let them lie about their age.
5. Follow your instincts since you know your kid best.
Recognize your child as an individual and trust your gut on what is or is not appropriate for their age, experience and personality. For example, while the age minimum for social media apps is generally 13, some kids just aren’t mature enough to handle them. There is an ongoing debate about what is the best age for parents to get their kids a cell phone or use specific apps. "My answer is always the same," said Teitelbaum. "Do your research, look at reviews and the app itself, but inform your decision-making on what you think is personally appropriate for your individual child."
6. Talk, and then talk some more.
Have a conversation about what online content makes you comfortable and uncomfortable so that you can establish a set of family boundaries. Having concrete rules in place enables you to give your kids the skills to be happy, safe and successful regardless of the specific app, Teitelbaum said. Her family talks about what type of online interactions the parents are uncomfortable with -- as well as the consequences of breaking the rules.
"Early on, we tried to give our son the opportunity to learn good social networking skills and allow him to show responsibility with this tool," she said. He and his classmates were big fans of Clash of Clans, and he was allowed to be in a chat group in the game with his friends. However, based on his maturity level, the family rule was that he could not use the global chat function, which allows interactions with strangers. "He knew that we would check his device and take it away if we had concerns about his behavior or the overall experience," she said.
7. Your job doesn't end with setting parental controls.
Apps generally have an infrastructure that includes the ability to report violators, block people and for parents to control how wide an access they want for their child to have. Don't be guilted into expanding you child's access. Minecraft is basically a great educational app that millions of kids enjoy safely. But add in chat rooms and servers and things get complicated fast. You have it within your power to block access to things you don't want your child dabbling with. Use it, and don't stop checking it just because you forgot your password.
8. A family that reviews apps together plays together.
Teitelbaum says "I know, it sounds cheesy. And, I know it’s way easier said than done. Considering there are more than 1.6 million apps in the Google Play store and 1.5 million in the Apple App Store, it’s hard for parents to keep track. New apps and games are released every day."
A rule of only having your kids use apps you’ve heard of could limit access to apps that are fun and safe services. "Our family reviews apps on a case-by-case basis with my son and we look at a number of factors -- is there an ability to talk with strangers or not? What’s the app rating? We also assess the age level and warnings to see if there’s anything inappropriate, and we read safety guides to see what reporting controls we have," she said, adding, "I check online reviews and guides such as Common Sense Media and others available online. And, I make an effort to use -- and enjoy -- the apps too! Going back to the Clash of Clans experience, while I don’t enjoy the battles, it turns out that I do enjoy building Clans! That led to us later getting competitive with Sim City."