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 am 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, (the link to the program is provided at the end of this post), but what I heard was 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.
And 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 corrupt my children’s innocence.
As if sensing I had something weighing heavily on my mind, my older daughter wanted to know what the “Lost Innocence” program was about. She and I had opened up discussions six months ago 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 her about a child who Googled the name of a sporting goods store with the name of some sports equipment and wound up seeing something distressing. 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 consoled.
I soon learned that when she 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 soon I 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 told her that her dad and I learned about filtering software that we would be installing on all the devices she and her sister use and on the family computer. It would block them from going to any sites she should not see.
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 inappropriate sites that they might accidentally (or purposely) go, I wished I had done it sooner. I quickly reminded this was not time for regret; my eyes had been opened, and I am now trying to do all I can to Ask. Involve. Open. Protect. Educate.
I fully realize 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 terms how harmful these sites are. We talked about some things she might say or do if she doesn’t like where something is heading or when 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 believed they couldn’t tell anyone the pain and embarrassment they felt when they were publically humiliated. I assured her several times that she can come to me no matter what she has done or what has been done to her.
Since the “Innocence Lost” program, I’ve been trying more than ever to model that there is a time and place for device usage—that a phone does not need to be an added appendage, and that it does not require constant checking. I am fully aware that my children are learning tech habits from me. A friend wrote on her beautiful blog last week, “What would you like for your children to remember you holding in your hands when they were young?” And I think it is equally important to ask, “What will my children remember holding in their hands when they were young?” Despite this generation’s heavy reliance on technology, I hope my children remember holding Banjo our cat, a wooden spoon to form cookie dough, musical instruments, books, bike handlebars, ladybugs, seashells, and especially my hand in theirs.
Although there are software programs that limit when and for how long kids can use the computer, for now, I am trying to teach my daughter to stay mindful. Even though she is using the computer to make creative movies and websites for her summer school, it’s still screen time. I make it a priority to exercise daily, go outside, and do things with my hands like bake and read books. I always ask my children to join me in these activities. What is sometimes met with grumblings quickly turns into smiles because stepping away from technology 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. “I am trying to keep in mind how long I have been on my electronics. And it’s time to take a break,” she said.
I felt a surge of happiness. Granted, I realize that just because she is being mindful of technology today doesn’t mean all problems are solved. But it means 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 your child’s online world can lead to irreparable damage to his or her mind, body, spirit, and future plans.
Because the minute you hand your children a smartphone or a computer, you 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.
- By clicking this link, you can access links to:
- Video of “Innocence Lost” program which I referred to in the post
- Video of the second “Innocence Lost” program which details many of the parental control options and settings for various devices.
- Tech support documents for adding parental controls or filtering to your smartphones/tablets
- “Protect Our Family Covenant”
2. Recently, this incredibly eye-opening post was being widely circulated. The author, Kristen Thompson, describes what is popular among young tech users today and the dangers of the different apps and sites.
3. One way to open up dialogue and set healthy expectations of phone usage is a phone contract. “Contracts are a great way to empower your children to be successful, rather than just catching them when they make mistakes.” [source]
4. How do you get a 14-year-old to talk? by author Paul Axtell. This powerful piece contains highly doable suggestions for connecting with young people of all ages.
I conclude this post with thanks to the following people who inspired me to write this post:
-my daughter for giving me permission to share her story
-my friend who created the “Lost Innocence” program and the men who shared their stories at the program.
-a reader of my blog who reached out to me after discovering her child’s was involved in disturbing online activity and needed to know it wasn’t too late to help him
Thank you all for being a part of The Hands Free Revolution—letting go of distraction to grasp what really matters seems especially important in light of such challenging online issues. Feel free to leave any information you might have that will help others in the comment section. If you feel this post could help someone else today, I’d be grateful if you share it.