Keeping Kids Safe in a Digital World


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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

There’s a general consensus in the parenting world: We want what’s best for our children, and we want more for them than we had growing up. This desire to supply our kids with the best of the best is personified in the wide array of electronic devices available to them. Our children can hold the entire world in their hands, with access to knowledge and entertainment mere clicks away. And let’s face it — these devices also help keep our kids wrangled long enough for us to get a few things done.

Sure, the internet and all its collective wonders can do a world of good for our children, but it can also serve up a lot of negatives. Are we successfully teaching our kids how to navigate the internet and social media responsibly when they encounter cyberbullying — or cyber strangers who have inappropriate intentions?

The Stats

Brain Balance Achievement Centers — a network of educational facilities that address behavioral, social and learning difficulties in kids by integrating sensory motor stimulation, academic stimulation and nutrition — recently surveyed 2,000 American parents about their children’s screen time habits. According to the results, 92 percent of kids spend more than an hour in front of a screen each day, which can significantly alter their developing brains. Brain Balance Achievement Centers believes more than two hours of screen time per day can cause a child’s brain to shrink and lose volume, leading to a brain imbalance.

According to the data:

• 22 percent of the children in the families surveyed are addicted to screens.
• 70 percent get one to three hours of screen time each day.

• 22 percent get more than three hours.

• 16 percent of the parents surveyed have used a TV or iPad to pacify their children. This statistic goes up to 23 percent for children who have certain difficulties.

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that provides education and advocacy to families to promote safe technology and media for children, has also collected data that supports and even extends Brain Balance Achievement Centers’ findings. A 2015 Common Sense Media report states that children ages 8-12 use media for entertainment purposes an average of six hours a day, and teenagers ages 13-18 use it for entertainment purposes an average of nine hours a day. This does not include time spent using media for schoolwork or homework.

Furthermore, a 2017 Common Sense Media study found that 98 percent of children ages 8 and younger live in a home that has some type of mobile device, and 95 percent of families with children in this age group have a smartphone. Clearly, today’s tweens and teens are experienced digital media consumers, which opens them up to challenges unlike any their parents experienced during childhood.

Cyberbullies and Dangerous Minds

Cyberbullying comes in many forms — ranging from verbal abuse on social media to encouraging “suicide games.” A game known as the Blue Whale Challenge is particularly disturbing. When playing, teens are given increasingly intense tasks to complete for 50 days that lead to self-harm and culminate in suicide. Terri Erbacher, a clinical associate professor in Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine’s department of psychology, describes this troubling trend.

“Teens challenge each other to play via social media, and players are assigned game administrators who elicit their personal information that may later be used against them,” she says. “Players are required to upload photos of the completed tasks and, if they refuse, game administrators may threaten to harm family members or come and do the task for them. It becomes extremely difficult to say no.”

Laura Tierney, president and founder of The Social Institute of Raleigh, says that while keeping kids safe online is harder now than ever before, open dialogue between parents and children is still one of the best ways to combat cyberthreats.

“I believe the greatest threat facing kids online today is associating social media with actual self-worth, because it affects their mental health,” Tierney says. “Let’s take a second and think about what that feels like as a teenager. Remember passing around your yearbook to classmates for their signatures? You were excited to see what your close friends would write. You worried about what your crush would write. You were anxious about what old friends would write if you didn’t hang out with them anymore. You’d rather have lots of people sign it rather than no one. Now imagine that happening 100 times a day in a yearbook that all your friends can read whenever they want.”

Tierney says it’s no surprise that in The Social Institute’s survey of 1,700 students in grades 7-12, 29 percent reported feeling that they’re under a lot of pressure to get a high number of likes, shares and comments on their posts.

“Social media allows us to socialize and connect with friends, but it also allows us to associate our self-worth with public feedback,” Tierney says. “It’s more important than ever to talk one-on-one with our children about social media every day, while encouraging them to continue pursuing extracurricular hobbies that strengthen friendships and personal self-esteem.”

Parental Monitoring Programs

These research findings, while not entirely shocking, are mission-critical to parents everywhere who face a scary reality: When kids use their devices, they may not be using them alone. Tweens, teens and even younger children can be prey for cyberbullying and the most volatile online predators.

T.J. Lane of Durham, an adoptive parent, middle school teacher and tennis coach, recognizes the dangers facing his adolescent son. After extensive research, he purchased a parental control program called Qustodio.

“I can monitor every single tap he makes with his little fingers — from texts to web searches,” Lane says. “I can even see when he changes his wallpaper or lowers the screen brightness. It’s amazing.”

Social Judo, an app created by New England-based brain surgeon Dr. Matt Phillips, also alerts parents if a child conducts prohibited actions on his or her device, such as using profanity, searching for pornography, engaging in cyberbullying or sexting. Other applications that help parents monitor their children’s online activity include Net Nanny, Norton Family Premier, Kaspersky Safe Kids and Circle With Disney, to name a few.

Set Clear Expecations

Kate Paquin, an Apex-based family coach, says the best way to help tweens and teens navigate an increasingly digital world is to outline expectations with your child before you give him or her that first smartphone.
“The key is to establish strict guidelines, just like you would if they were driving a car or going out with their friends,” she says. “The guidelines can be loosened later on, but they must be set from the get-go.”

Paquin, who teaches a class called “Social Media for Parents of Teens and Preteens,” also offers the following tips for keeping your kids safe in a digital world.

Know your teen’s passwords. “If I can’t log in to one of my children’s phones, the phone is taken away,” she says. This is especially important because many teens know how to make multiple accounts for one app. Your child may have one Instagram account for their parents to see and a “Finsta,” or “fake Instagram” account, for their circle of friends to view.
Be aware of what teens are doing on any device that connects to the internet, not just their smartphone.

Keep the family computer in an open space.

• Use caution when posting pictures of children on Facebook and other social media accounts. “Parents should make profiles in Facebook private,” she says. “Your pictures of young children, vacation pictures, can be prime ground for pedophiles.”


This article includes reprinted information from “Digital Privacy: Is It OK to Spy on Your Teen,” published by Carolina Parent in February 2015 at carolinaparent.com/cp/digital-privacy-is-it-ok-to-spy-on-your-teen.

Lauren Ramirez of Lexington is a new mom, former teacher and current higher education professional.

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