February 09, 2015 —

I’m often told how hard it is to parent in this digital age.

So many decisions about devices, software, apps and games have to be made and at increasingly younger ages.  Amazon and others have created tablets for pre-school kids.  Parents are buying smart phones for kindergartners.  And there’s a potty training app complete with stand for your iPad.

All of this before they’ve reached elementary and middle school years.  Then it’s Minecraft, Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin.  Texting takes off, particularly among the girls and new issues arise around photo and video sharing.

And just when you’ve mastered all that, the teen years come along with the onslaught of social media sites from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter, never mind anonymous apps like Ask.fm, Secret and YikYak.  Problematic issues arise that range from sexting and cyberbullying to identity theft and simply spending too much time online.

What’s a parent to do?

Well, I’ve tried to distill many years of work in this constantly changing space to seven simple, but still challenging steps to become a good digital parent.  It is definitely a journey, like parenting itself.  And there is no such thing as perfection.  Just good enough.

Here goes:

  1. Talk with your kids: It sounds simple, but the number one indicator of good digital parenting is keeping an open line of communication going with your kids.  Talk early and often.  It is not like the birds and the bees discussion.  It is more like an ongoing dialogue that will move and shift as your child works her way through several key developmental stages.  Stay calm.  Be open and direct.  But keep talking.
  2. Educate yourself: This is probably the first technology in human history where the kids are leading the adults.  It is very humbling to have a 7 year old explain how to upload a video.  Or your teen rolling his eyes once again as you try to master Pandora.  But there is a wealth of tips, videos, explanations and guides out there.  If in doubt, simply type in your question or concern in your favorite search engine and there will be more than enough information to go on.
  3. Use parental controls: It goes without saying that there is content on the Internet you don’t want your kids stumbling upon.  All of the major operating systems, search engines, cell phone providers and gaming platforms provide either free or inexpensive parental controls to help you manage your child’s online experience.  And, as your children get older, move from controls to monitoring tools, particularly around time limits to discourage texting in class or vamping late at night.
  4. Set ground rules & apply sanctions: Many parents don’t know where to start in creating rules of the road for their children’s digital use.  But there are many online safety contracts to choose from as well as simple house rules such as no devices at dinner and handing in their phones at night.  Once you’ve set the rules, enforce them.  Let your kids know that they will lose online privileges if they break the rules and be clear and consistent about what those sanctions will be.
  5. Friend and follow, but don’t stalk: When your teen opens her Facebook account at 13, ensure you’re her first friend.  Follow your kids on Twitter and YouTube.  Don’t overdo it and leave daily comments, but don’t under do it either.  It’s good to stay close as your teen makes his first forays into the world of social media.  But don’t be tempted to spy on your kids, either.  Talking instead of stalking is what builds trust.  Give your teen some space to experiment, to take (healthy) risks and to build resiliency.
  6. Explore, share and celebrate: With the rules and tools in place, don’t forget to just go online with your kids.  Play games, watch videos, share photos and generally hang out with your children online.  Learn from them and have fun.   Share your favorite sites and download their apps.  See the world through their eyes.  And let them know your values and beliefs as you guide them on their way.
  7. Be a good digital role model: Be the change you want to see in your kids.  Resist the temptation to pull out your phone to check your email over dinner or send a quick text while driving.  Keep an eye on your own digital habits and compulsions and model good digital behavior and balance.  Your children will pay far more attention to what you do, than to what you say – both online and offline. 

This post was originally published on FOSI's Good Digital Parenting blog.

For the past 30 years, Stephen Balkam has had a wide range of leadership roles in the nonprofit sector in the both the US and UK. He is currently the Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), an international, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, DC. FOSI’s mission is to make the online world safer for kids and their families.