Like most kids today, my ten-year-old daughter seemed to be born with an inherent ability to navigate technology. While it took me many months and daily tech assistance to learn how to manage an online blog, my child created a website in one afternoon. And now, after spending the last school year in technology club, her knowledge has far surpassed mine and seems more complex than ever.
As I watch my daughter delve deeper and deeper into a digital world so foreign from the one I grew up in, there’s a little voice within me urging me to keep up. Although it takes great patience to listen to her describe everything she knows about iMovies, computer programming, online games, and QR codes, I eagerly accept her invitations. I'm grateful each time she says, “Check this out, Mom,” because I know the number of invitations will decrease as my daughter grows.
While my child expertly clicks and navigates, I gently dole out warnings of online dangers that don’t come inherently but instead from experience and awareness. I educate her about online predators and warn her about giving out personal information. She knows the stories of children whose innocent online “chat” with someone they thought was a kid turned into a grave and life-changing mistake.
Yet, despite these efforts, I knew I was missing something.
Suddenly, an opportunity fell into my lap. A friend of mine organized a program to help the parents in my community protect our children in the electronic world. It was appropriately called, Innocence Lost. Using a forum-style setting, several experts in the field of technology safety were going to provide specific ways to guard family values from intrusive technology.
My first inclination was that my children (age six and nine at the time) were too young to be exposed to such dangers; I was so wrong. Thank goodness that little inner voice urged me to attend the program. As soon as the first panelist began speaking of his devastating experience with the Internet, I was grateful I had come. I looked around knowing the parents sitting beside me had children ranging from toddlers to teens. But despite the differing life stages, I thought: We are all here at the right time. Anytime a parent opens his or her eyes to the dangers of children in the online world is the right time.
Two well-spoken, highly educated young men described how they stumbled into the world of pornography and quickly lost everything that mattered most to them. Their stories are not my stories to tell, but what I can share is this:
They wanted their parents to ask questions.
They wanted their parents to be involved in their lives—including their online lives.
They wanted to know they could come to their parents openly with any mistakes and wrongdoings and not be shamed or dismissed.
I willed myself to remember what I heard.
As the experts went on to explain the many filtering and accountability software programs for different types of devices, I willed myself to remember two more invaluable actions:
Educate (both my children and myself)
Needless to say, I left the program disturbed and shaken, but also aware, empowered, and motivated. I would not put my head in the sand and allow the cyber world to cause irreparable damage to my family.
As if sensing I had something weighing heavily on my mind, my older daughter wanted to know what the Innocence Lost program was about. She and I had opened up discussions six months prior about other heavy adult issues, but this was my chance to tell her about pornography. This was my chance to tell her how these particular websites are designed so people immediately see disturbing images when they click on the site—even if they go there by accident.
I told my daughter about a child who Googled the name of a sporting goods store with the name of some sports equipment and wound up seeing something disturbing. I said, “The images of this nature are the kind that once you see them, you can’t get them out of your head.”
That’s when an unmistakable look of worry and shame came over her face.
My heart stopped beating for a moment and my mouth became dry.
I am too late. I thought sadly.
“Is that what happened to you?” I forced myself to ask although hearing her response was truly the last thing I ever wanted to hear. “You can tell me. It’s happened to me, and it’s happened to lots of kids,” I assured.
I soon learned that when my child was a mere kindergartener, she was searching for American Doll videos. She saw one that had a doll on its initial cover image, but once she clicked on the video, she saw things that she knew were not appropriate … things she knew were not for children … things that made her feel bad and shameful.
I am too late. I thought again for one brief moment.
But then I quickly reminded myself of this empowering truth: Anytime a parent opens his or her eyes to the dangers of children in the online world is the right time.
The words of the courageous young men who spoke at Innocence Lost came back in full force: Assure your child he did nothing wrong. Assure your child what she saw doesn’t make her “bad.” Assure your children they can come to you anytime they see or do something that makes them feel embarrassed, confused, or upset.
I told my daughter I was sorry I had not protected her from this. I explained that her dad and I learned about filtering software that we would be installing on all our devices and family computer. It would prevent her from going to any harmful and inappropriate sites.
As promised, we installed Net Nanny on all devices that very night. When I saw how beautifully the program kept my kids from going to harmful sites they might accidentally (or purposely) go, I wished I’d done it sooner. I quickly reminded myself this was not time for regret. My eyes had been opened, and I was now trying to do all I could to Ask. Involve. Open. Protect. Educate.
I fully realize that just because we have Internet protection software at home doesn’t mean my child’s friends will. That is why I believe education is vital. I told my child in age-appropriate language how harmful pornographic sites are. We talked about what she could say or do if a friend starts doing something she knows is wrong on a smartphone or computer. We talked about cyber bullying and how some young people have ended their lives because they felt so alone in their pain and embarrassment. I assured my daughter she can come to me no matter what she's done or what's been done to her.
Since the Innocence Lost program, I’ve been extremely mindful of the example I am setting. Through my actions, I model there's a time and place for device usage, that a phone need not be an added appendage, and does not require constant checking. I am fully aware my children are learning tech habits from me; I want them to be healthy tech habits, not destructive ones.
Although there are effective software programs that limit children’s media usage, so far my daughter is learning to be mindful of her own usage. Although she uses the computer to do schoolwork and creative projects, it’s still screen time. I make it a priority to exercise daily, spend time outdoors, and do hands-on activities, like bake, volunteer, and read books. When I do these activities, I ask my children to join me. What is sometimes met with grumblings quickly turns into laughter because stepping away from technology to connect with each other just feels good.
The other day, my daughter came down stairs and asked me if she could call her friends to go on a bike ride. “It’s time to take a break from the screen,” she said surprisingly.
I felt a surge of happiness. Granted, I realize just because she is being mindful of technology usage today doesn’t mean all problems are solved. But it does indicate we’re heading in the right direction. I’m trying my best to empower my daughter with the wisdom to make smart, safe, and informed decisions about her digital life.
I will admit, it would be lot easier to just let my child go to a separate room and stare at a separate screen. It would be a lot easier to just let her go it alone rather than delving into this cyber world that seems to change with each passing day. But the cost of separate rooms, separate screens, and separate lives is high—not being a part of our children's online world can lead to irreparable damage to their minds, bodies, spirits, and future plans.
Because the minute we hand our children a smartphone or a computer, we are handing them access to everything—good and bad—in the cyber world. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Ask. Involve. Open. Protect. Educate. Model.
Even when the words don’t come easy …
Even when they push you away …
Even when you’re tired after a long day …
Even when you think this doesn’t apply your child …
Even when you think you might be too late …
The moment you decide to open your eyes to the dangers of the digital world is the right time.
These are just six more ways to love and protect a child—21st century style.
What you just read is an excerpt from the book, HANDS FREE LIFE, by New York Times bestselling author & certified special education teacher, Rachel Macy Stafford. For more inspiration & practical strategies to help you let go of modern day distractions to grasp what really matters, join Rachel on her blog or Facebook page.