Phew! We survived the holidays. It certainly was a wonderful whirlwind of visiting with family and friends. Being in good company, preparing traditional meals, enjoying festive decorations, and thoughtful gifts all make for a special time of year. With each passing holiday, I am more and more grateful for the people in my life, and there is no better way to end the year than connecting with loved ones. For children, gifts are a holiday favorite, something to look forward to. You can just feel the excitement when a child is given a gift to unwrap. When I was a small child, it seemed that gifts were simpler. A favorite toy of mine, for example, was my Cabbage Patch doll, Haley Eileen — who just happened to have red hair like me!
Well, as they say — times have changed. Technology is now on the wish lists of many children, even younger children, and that can be an understandable concern for parents. As prosecutor, I’m often asked about the dangers of tablets and smartphones. The truth is, left unchecked, these devices can be dangerous. Another truth is that technology is here to stay.
In this day and age, it seems that smart devices are almost a rite of passage. Some schools even give out Chromebooks or Ipads to students for schoolwork. No doubt, electronics have their benefits, but it is important that we, as parents, stay involved in the technology we are gifting our children. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to fully know all the ins and outs of the e-gifts we give, so as adults, we must stay vigilant. We must reinforce with our children the words of Spiderman’s grandfather, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
What does that mean? Well, responsibility goes both ways. Once the device has been activated, we have to stay involved. Yes, it is a difficult and ongoing job, a necessary responsibility. Children should not be allowed to control technology. Just as we would not let our children go home with strangers in the “real world,” we should not let our children have access to the unknowns of the “virtual world.” They are not equipped to do so, and parental guidance is absolutely necessary. Children need to understand that they too are responsible. Here is what I would recommend not only for safety, but for teaching our children electronic and digital responsibility as they grow.
First, talk with your child. Have an open conversation, making it clear that you set the boundaries and rules for using the smart device. Let them know it’s your device, and you are gifting them the use of it. Discuss with them your expectations. How long can your child use the device? Who can your child talk to? What games can he or she play? When should the device be turned off for the evening? Where will the device be kept overnight (ideally not in the child’s bedroom)?
Second, enforce the ground rules, and use “apps” to help you do it. For example, the Amazon kids’ tablet has a mode you can activate just for kids. They can’t download or surf the internet when it is in this mode. Life 360 is another popular app. I personally haven’t used it, but I know of other parents who do.
Third, monitor your child’s use of the smart device. Yep, good old fashion snooping! Remember, it’s your device. You are allowing your child to use it. So if you want to snoop around, by all means, go for it. Make sure your child knows this is one of your expectations and randomly pick different times to monitor use. Finally, make sure everyone knows your rules — your spouse, other parents, school, etc.
It’s a big job. It’s not easy, and the dangers are always evolving. Just do the best you can. Doing something is always better than nothing, even if you don’t know all the pitfalls. Talk to other parents. Talk to your children. Make sure they know they can come to you if anything questionable happens while using a smart device. There are also some really great online resources to help keep you updated such as commonsensemedia.org.
If your household did welcome new technology this holiday, there are currently three popular apps to be aware of. Of course, there are more, but these top three seem to be what many kids are using right now.
1) Snapchat: Unfortunately, this continues to be a beacon and safe haven for predators to send nude photographs and have conversations with our kids without our knowledge because the communication disappears.
2) Any “vault” app.: There used to be an app that appeared to be a calculator, but really it was just an icon, a “store front” for users to hide private information. If you saw it, you wouldn’t be the wiser that it was not actually a calculator. This particular app has faded away, but like with any technology, new ones pop up all the time.
3) Whisper/Ask fm.: These apps continue to evolve, but like the calculator app, new versions come out all the time. These apps allow anonymous communication with other users. Kids doing things anonymously is not good — a breeding ground for bullying and unwanted messages or solicitations. These apps can do harm to your child’s mental health as well as put them in harm’s way with predators who encourage secrets.
On the flip side, technology can be a wonderful resource, educational and fun, an electronic connection to exciting opportunities and different worlds. As we continue to set boundaries and build relationships with our children, they can absolutely flourish with technology.
No doubt our kids will grow up to work in a world that requires daily use of computers and other devices, and I know that with guidance and care, our children will learn to make responsible decisions when online. Just like anything else, it takes practice and dedication. So here’s to all of us parents and educators, neighbors and family friends, anyone concerned with the safety or our children — you can do it! Whether online or off, here’s to a happy and safe new year. Happy 2020 Delaware County!
Melissa A. Schiffel is Delaware County prosecutor.