Month: September 2018

The Talk

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Not THAT talk. That’s beyond my expertise and if anyone has good advice on THAT talk please let me know. This talk is the talk with your kids about online safety. As parents, we want to arm our kids with the knowledge and an appropriate caution to avoid the truly dangerous hazards of the internet, but we don’t want to scare them so much they have nightmares or never want to engage online at all. We all grew up with the basic rules for staying safe in the real world. Stranger danger, the buddy system, and never get in a car with someone, and we were pretty much all set. But these rules need a few tweaks and additions for online safety. Here are some tips for how and when to talk to your kids and some simple rules you can teach them.

When to talk with your kids

It’s never too early. The right time to talk to kids about online safety is before they have to deal with it. A good first step is to find some YouTube channels or Twitter feeds (Facebook would also work but I don’t recommend facebook at all) that your kids will be interested in. Spend some time watching the videos or reading posts with your kids and talk about the comments or other interactive features of the site. If your kids like a video, help them post a comment. Take some time to review what kinds of things it is OK to post. Supportive comments are great, but no personal information.

This is also a good time to review the golden rule and talk about etiquette. We want our kids to understand that online content is someone’s creative effort (we’ll teach them about mega-corporate advertising later) and that it is OK if they don’t like it but if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Cyberbullies learn early, just like other bullies.

How to talk to your kids

First of all, this isn’t going to be a one-time talk. You’re going to have a lot of small conversations rather than one long one. If your kids are anything like mine, then they are going to lose interest after about 5 minutes so we are going to have to prioritize what we want them to know and deliver it quickly. Remember, the most important part of talking to your kids about online safety is that they are willing to talk to you. You can’t prepare them for every situation so what you want is for them to feel comfortable coming to ask for your advice or help when a situation comes up.

I was looking for a picture of a bored child, but then I found this cute picture of a girl with a rabbit.

When I was in high school, I had a “deal” with my parents that if I ever found myself in an unsafe situation, for example if I was out with friends and someone was too drunk to drive, I could call my parents and they would come pick me up no questions asked. I recommend something similar with your kids here. Make sure they understand that even if they are doing something online you have forbidden, they can still come to you and get a free pass. If this ever happens you should praise them for being honest and open,  help them address the issue, and then you can block the site or content if necessary. We are working on a post explaining how to block online content effectively so if you are interested, please subscribe to be notified of new posts.

So, keep it short but also make it clear that this is an important discussion. You may want to explicitly lay out what’s in it for your child. You might say something like, “I want you to be able to chat with your friends or play online games, so we are going to talk about some rules for online safety. Just like we have rules for going to the park or the store, there are some rules I need you to follow online.”

I recommend against trying to scare kids straight in these talks. There may be times when it is appropriate or even necessary to share some of the awful stories about kids going missing or people’s homes being robbed while they are on vacation. But generally I find it is sufficient to say “These rules help to keep you and your friends and family safe. There are some bad people on the internet and if they have too much information about you they could do bad things.” If your child is old enough and wants more details you can talk about things like identity theft or online fraud. These are less scary but still help kids understand some of the potential consequences.

What to say (Dan’s basic rules for online safety)

For my kids, I like to keep rules simple and absolute. Yes, there will be exceptions and as they get older I’ll expect them to use more of their own judgement to decide when it is OK not to follow these rules. In the beginning, I want these rules to be walls protecting my kids. As they get older, these should be guidelines that remind them to consider carefully before sharing information or trusting people and content online.

As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t going to be a one-time talk. So pick a few items from the list you want to cover each time you talk. The priority for some of these will depend on your child and the kind of activities they are engaged in online. I try to touch on the first three rules every time. A key fact to remember is that no online attacker can reach through the internet and grab your kid. So making sure that kids don’t give out any information that could help a bad actor is the most important part of online safety.

  • Rule 1: Friends you meet online don’t need to know anything about your real life. Don’t tell them your name, where you live, where you go to school, or how old you are. 
  • Rule 2: If someone online is asking you for any of this information, in addition to not answering, you should tell a parent right away. 
  • Rule 3: Never agree to meet someone IRL (in real life)
  • Rule 4: People online may not be who they say. If you get a message from someone who is claiming to be a friend or even a family member or teacher, you can respond, but all the rules about not giving out any information about your real life still apply. If the person really is who they claim, they will have other ways of getting your information.
  • Rule 5: There are other topics you should avoid with online acquaintances. These can give a bad guy information they can use to learn more about you. Don’t talk about the weather or big public events in your area like concerts or rallies. If talking about sports, try not to refer to a “home team”. For the most part, it is best to avoid small talk and focus on the game or the topic of the online discussion.
  • Rule 6: Never open files or download anything an online friend sends you without checking with a parent. Often times gamers may send you a link to download a game plugin or even a free game. These links may contain viruses or other dangerous programs, or they may be illegal copies of a game (Pirated Software). Downloading pirated software, even if you did not know it was illegally obtained, is a serious crime. So always check with a grownup before trusting a link or file from someone you only know online. You can check the safety of links or files using some easy online tools like this Google service. Another good online tool for checking websites is Virus Total. This site will also scan files for you to see if they contain known viruses.
  • Rule 7: Never tell someone online your password. Not even if they claim to be from the company that made a game or website you are trying to use. No legitimate technical support should be asking for your password. Never share your password with online friends either. They may ask for your password to give you some loot in a game or to help you level up. You should not trust these kinds of offers. Just not worth the risk. Plus it is kind of cheating.
  • Rule 8: Never threaten anyone else online. Cyberbullying is a serious issue and in some places can be a serious crime. We are not as anonymous as we think we are online. So don’t say or do anything you would not do in real life.
  • Rule 9: If someone online ever threatens you or makes you feel uncomfortable, tell a parent or another grownup as soon as you can. If you can save the messages or capture them with a screen shot, that will help your adults put a stop to this behavior.
  • Rule 10: Talk to your parents. Show them the games and sites you are interested in. They may have some interesting information to share with you (probably not, they are parents after all, but who knows?). But knowing the kinds of online communities you are a part of will let your parents help you stay safe online.

What if my kids won’t listen?

Yeah, my kids don’t listen either. Keep trying. Maybe ice cream will help? 

Screen time is also quality time

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One of the most common questions I’m asked by parents is,

“My kids are always on their phones/tablets/xbox/playstation/ etc.”

To which I usually reply,

“Well that’s not really a question. It’s more of a statement, but i get what you mean.”

My kids each have an iPad and a Kindle Fire, we have 3 Apple TVs a Chromecast, and an xBox. When I want to tell my kids it’s time for dinner I usually FaceTime them and my youngest has been able to text since he was 2. So… I obviously have a different opinion than many about how much screen time is too much.

The general argument for screen time

There is a lot of good science out there about how screen time affects our little one’s developing brain. There are also a lot of studies that highlight the positive effects screen time can bring. In my opinion, the benefits of our modern hyper-connected electronic epoch far outweigh any cultural side effects. But even if I didn’t believe that, it seems unlikely that we are going to be able to put the “always online genie” back in the bottle. Digital literacy is going to be a critical life skill for our children. Believe it or not, playing video games and watching YouTube is preparing your children for the jobs of the future. There are certain constants in the computer-human interface and the more time someone spends with a computer, the more intuitive these constants become. That’s why many IT professionals can sit down with an application they have never used and “figure it out” much faster than someone who has logged fewer hours in front of the keyboard (as we like to say in the industry). It’s not because of the IT professional’s knowledge of how to write programs or setup websites. It is because most programs share certain common design elements and as you get used to these, it becomes much faster and less frustrating to figure out new variations.

Whether you think an hour of screen time a day is too much or you’ve completely abandoned your children’s care and education to YouTube, what I’m going to talk about today is ways you can make sure screen time is also quality time

Educational content

There are a lot of ways you can make screen time more productive. The most obvious ones involve educational apps and websites. There is a lot of great education content out there. And the creators generally do a good job of making content interesting to kids so they won’t even realize they are learning!

It’s best to review any website or app yourself before turning your kid loose on it. You want to watch out for apps that have lots of ads. Sometimes the ads are not appropriate and they can distract your kids from the educational goodness. Many of these apps or websites will cost money, often as a subscription. Of course everyone’s situation is different, but for the most part paid subscriptions are how these content developers are able to deliver such high quality services. So paying a couple of bucks can often get you more content and supports than the free-tier of service.  

Some of my Favorites Apps and Web Sites include:

For toddlers is a great site with content for kids from pre-k through 6th grade. They also have good apps for iOS and Android. The site has educational games in different subjects. For the youngest ones they have games that teach shapes, colors, counting, etc. As the kids get older they can play more challenging games that help with math, reading, etc. is a great resource for those rainy days when your kids have too much energy. The site has lots of fun interactive videos to get your little ones moving and active. There are a few calming videos, but generally this is not something you want to get into near bedtime.

The GoNoodle and ABCya websites both have very good apps. A few others that have been big hits with my kids are First Words Animals by Learning Touch LLC and Toddler Counting by iTot Apps, LLC. First Words is an iOS application that helps kids learn those first important sight words and also teaches letter shapes and sounds. Learning Touch has several other apps that teach other languages as well. Toddler Counting is an incredibly simple app that displays a random number of pictures. The kid has to touch each object once at which point the app says the next number in sequence. This teaches kids one-to-one counting and also helps them learn numbers. The app demonstrates one of the advantageous of electronic education. Skills like counting need repetition for young ones to develop proficiency. The iPad is endlessly patient with the kid which is exactly what is needed to teach the foundational skills.

For older kids

Puzzle and strategy games can help kids build important problem solving skills. One of the best games of this genre is The Room Three. There is actually a The Room and The Room Two, but your not missing anything by jumping straight into the third edition. This puzzle game has a spooky feel but remains safely PG. In the game, you find yourself in a series of rooms each with some kind of machine you need to activate. You have to find objects in the room and figure out how they fit together to solve the puzzle. The game gives you hints over time so you likely won’t get stuck for days on a puzzle. This game is a great chance for kids and parents to play together. There is a great feeling when you finally solve one of the puzzles and sharing that with a parent will be a great bonding opportunity.

Trivia games are also a great choice. There are hundreds of these on different topics so look for something that matches your kids interests. Kids can challenges themselves and each other, but this can also be a fun twist on family game night. Let your kids be the trivia master and ask questions of the grown-ups.

Many popular board games are also available as apps. Monopoly, Life, Risk, etc. as well as things like chess and backgammon. Many of these can be played single player against the computer for practice but can also be multi-player. The nice thing about playing the electronic versions of these games is that there is no setup time and no mess to clean up.

Screen time is the new family drive

Screen time, even when it has no redeeming educational aspect, can still be a valuable parenting tool. Back in the long long ago, when there was no cable TV much less Netflix, families would pile into the steel and fiberglass tank that they lovingly referred to as “the family car” and go for a long drive. Without any specific destination in mind, this was simply a way to spend time together as a family. Families would talk and play games because, let’s face it, they were stuck in the car with nothing else to do. Screen time can be a way to recapture this family time but with more binge watching.

Sure, sometimes screen time is how we keep the kids occupied while we indulge ourselves as parents and do things like cook a meal or do laundry. But screen time can also be an important opportunity to spend time with your kids. Many of the family-friendly movies and TV shows today are entertaining for both children and adults and teach valuable moral lessons. Watching Frozen or Smallfoot with your kids can be a fun bonding experience. After, or even during the movie, take time to talk to your kids about what the characters did, how they might have felt and what lessons they can take away from the show. 

For older kids, movies like The Avengers series or Spider-Man are packed with teachable moments that can serve as an opportunity to discuss very serious issues in a lighter and relatable way. Also, revisiting some of those fun 80s movies can be a great way to bond with our kids and also teach them valuable lessons like what to do if you turn into a werewolf or how much electrical energy is in a bolt of lightning.  

And then there is YouTube

This post would not be complete without some discussion of YouTube. There are literally millions of hours of high quality educational content on YouTube. The trick is finding this content amongst the billions of hours of absolute crap. Here are a few tips to help you:

  • YouTube Red is a subscription service. It allows you to watch some of YouTube’s premium content and also allows you to download YouTube videos to watch offline. Most importantly though, it removes ads from YouTube videos. This is 100{12810d732553a0644ecc90a0e23d1efc26a399b3533b5403ed90d6fcf4bb1dcd} worth the cost.
  • There are 2 official YouTube apps. YouTube Kids provides a simplified interface and a curated library of videos appropriate for kids.
  • Even the regular YouTube app provides some options to filter content.

Lastly, and this is going to be the hardest part, sharing screen time with your kids is going to require some amount of compromise. Yes, you can and should force your children to watch Star Wars with you when they are of the appropriate age. And yes, you should watch them in the original release order (4,5,6,1,2,3). And yes, you have to watch episode 1. We all had to suffer through it, so do our children. But you will always need to let your kids take the lead sometimes and pick the movie. You may even need to spend at least some time watching those Fortnite videos with your kids. Again, this is an opportunity to find teachable moments. Talk with your kids about how you feel about the language and actions of the YouTubers. Make sure they know what you consider OK and what is inappropriate.

In conclusion

The most important factor in making sure screen time is quality time is to be engaged with your kids. This is the chance to learn what they like and think about, and to share with them some of the things you love. Screen time should not be a substitute for family time, it should BE family time.