Our life by the numbers sometimes catches me by surprise. Six kids, seven bedrooms, four gallons of milk a week - I could go on and on. We live in bulk. When I recently realized we have more than 20 internet-connected devices in our home, I was shocked. Twenty ways for our people to reach the world, and for the world to reach our people.
I am generally all for reaching the world (clearly). We use the internet as a teaching tool daily: fact checking political debates, figuring out how why our hens aren't laying, and prepping for the driver's test. Four of the devices on our network are issued by the kids' schools, and internet access is required for schoolwork. The interwebs can be a terrific thing. That said, the effects of constant connectedness, screen time, and the internet at large on children are well documented and not good (too many articles to link all, but here's one from the American Academy of Pediatrics).
Armed with information, and overwhelmed by devices, Gabe and I made a plan. We do six things in an effort to keep our children, ages 8-15, safe as they surf the web and connect with the world digitally.
We stay current on what's out there. We attend school lectures on internet safety, read articles, and talk to other parents. Amy is desperate for SnapChat. We've read a bunch about SnapChat in the past, and have said no. However, last month, the internet expert at school said it had evolved, and may not pose the safety risk it once did. After talking to other parents (mortifying for both Amy and Simon, who had already TOLD us everybody has it, no need to verify #parentsaresoembarrasing), we agreed it was a privilege the Bigs (Amy and Simon) could earn. We spend time learning text shorthand, both from the kids (much to their amusement) and sites like Urban Dictionary. We research apps before allowing downloads; Common Sense Media is one of our favorite resources.
We educate the children too. We talk about nude pictures and pornography charges and share articles about cyber bullying and talk about what they might do if they find themselves in that situation. We talk about how big the internet is, and that things on there aren't necessarily real and often are wildly inappropriate for them at 8 or 15. We talk about how easy it is to send something quickly online, without thinking, and how difficult it can be to retract. These conversations often expand beyond internet safety, to courtesy and kindness and respect, so we include everyone, even the Littles. Starting the conversation early and having it often benefits the full group and makes for lively carpool discussion.
We set guidelines. Only interacting with people you know in real life, behaving as you would if the person was in front of you, and talking to an adult if you see something that makes you uncomfortable are a few of ours. We also talk about limiting the time you spend with a screen overall, moving your body, and focusing on real life reward instead of likes or shares. We want the kids to learn how to incorporate their digital, online activity into a broader healthy lifestyle. Establishing and sticking to guidelines is an important part of that process.
The third thing we do is control access, physically and digitally. Physically, our desktop computer (dinosaur that it is) sits on our upstairs balcony, in full view. All devices come out of bedrooms at bedtime and charge at a central charging station in our living room overnight. By the time Gabe and I turn in the charging station looks like an electronics junk yard. It's not pretty, but it works. Removing the devices from bedrooms helps the kids get a good night's sleep and ensures they're not tempted to text or surf at all hours.
Digitally, I use Apple's Family Sharing to control access to apps and other purchases. Kids have to ask permission (through a push notification) before downloading an app. A side benefit of the sharing program is that we can also share purchased material easily, stretching our pennies. Gabe takes a different approach, controlling access digitally by distributing apps to the children via his Apple id, giving him a single point of control.
We also use a Wi-Fi control device at home. There are many available; the one we use and like best is Disney's Circle. The Circle is an inexpensive small square device (ikr?!) that plugs into the router. Gabe set it up and downloaded the management app in less than half an hour one Sunday afternoon. We can assign every device that signs on to our internet to a child, and set time limits and bedtimes, identify age appropriate content, and monitor how they spend their time. Circle is fully managed by an app Gabe and I have on our phones, and is super easy. We can even pause the internet in the whole house if needed (#funtrickstoplayonkids). So summary on Circle? Gabe and I love it, kids not so much.
Even after strictly controlling access, we monitor all the kids' devices. That means we have the passwords and use them. We read endless strings of inane middle school texts, look at photos, scan app message inboxes. We load their email accounts onto our phones, and check often. The kids know that we can read anything at anytime.
We don't talk about what we see - their social lives are private, even if we're dying to intervene. We don't check their devices in front of them or others. The only comments we make about online activity are about safety. And here's the thing: we've had to comment. Even our good kids have done stupid stuff we need to address. You can't joke about drug use, even when it's clear when I talk to you that you actually have no idea what you're talking about. You can't send a crudely drawn picture of male genitalia to your friends because it was an iOS text message drawing dare. Just NO. The amount of stupid stuff isn't overwhelming, but it isn't zero. Monitoring is important.
There are consequences for misuse in this house. Sometimes they are natural consequences: having to talk to your MOTHER about the fact that you don't actually know what you typed on that group chat, you were just trying to fit in and so you copied it from a meme is embarrassing. Having your MOTHER explain to you, in graphic detail, what that actually means is MORTIFYING. Other consequences are more mundane - lose your device, pay for data overages, wash the dishes. The consequences exist to remind kids that what they do online has real world implications. That's a lesson I want learned early and often. Online activity is the same as real world activity.
Finally, because we are a blended stepfamily, we communicate with the other household where each set of kids also lives. That doesn't mean we impose our rules. Rather, it means we talk about what we've seen, and share when we've enacted consequences. That helps us co-parent effectively to keep this bunch safely surfing, no matter where they're sleeping tonight.
I don't think any plan can guarantee safety 100% of the time. Our plan certainly hasn't made our kids happy, as they wait for us to research the app they want or get booted off the group chat because it is bedtime. What the plan has done is give us structure and a sense of control over our children's online experience, and sparked an ongoing conversation we're all learning from. That makes it worth our while.