As the founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, Stephen Balkam spends a lot of time thinking and talking about managing kids and technology. As the father of two daughters, he’s spent a lot of time figuring out how to parent digital kids. He recently sat down and answered a few questions.
Between Us Parents (BUP): While every child and family is different, what are some general thoughts you think parents need to consider when it comes to giving phones to kids?
Stephen Balkam (SB): I think parents are waking up to the reality that giving a kid a phone means basically giving them a supercomputer with more processing power than NASA had to put a man on the moon. They’re not really sure they want their child to have that.
We all have to be a lot more thoughtful and mindful of what technology can do, for good and not so good, and the impact it has on our kids.
Parents, depending on age and experience, often fear technology, but we don’t want to pass that fear onto the kids. If you come with fear-based messaging, it’s not very helpful. Fight or flight is not a great way to live life.
BUP: What advice do you have for parents when it comes to setting boundaries and ground rules regarding technology?
SB: Don’t just dictate. Include your kids. Sit down with your kids and say, “Okay, we’re going to get you a feature phone and tablet, but we have to set some rules. We are going to work with you to figure out what the rules should be. Mom and I have some ideas but we want to hear your ideas first on how it is reasonable when to use these and not, and where to go on them and not. Start with you – what are your ideas.”
Listening and absorb what they say, and then pivot to being the parent.
Even if you ask kids to help you create rules, you still have to set them and enforce them. If you don’t give sanctions to rule that have been agreed to, you might as well not create the rules.
BUP: What are your thoughts on parental controls?
SB: They can be great and even wondrous. For example, with Verizon Smart Family, you have the ability to pause the internet.
Struggling to get kids to dinner or in the car? Pause the internet. You’ll get their attention without shouting or threatening.
I like that Smart Family let you be as restrictive or loose as you like.
You can set limits on the amount of texts they send. You can set time of day when it’s accessible by kids. For example, set it to block out at 7 p.m. every night for dinner.
Set up the controls with your kids. Don’t go into spy mode. That breaks down the trust, and when that trust is broken, they’re less likely to report to you when trouble arises.
BUP: What advice do you have for parents on addressing cyberbullying?
SB: There has always been bullying. What makes this world so much more challenging for kids in particular is that the bullying can follow you home and on your devices. Social media sites are the new playgrounds and street corners and backyards.
It’s a good reason to have less smart phones for kids – there are less ways for them to be got at. For older kids,
Report, report, report. Tell a trusted adult – parents, teacher, someone they know well.
In addition, report it on the platform it’s coming in on. Parents should educate themselves on how to report these things. In the early days, it really was wild west. But technology companies, ISPs and social media sites are far more nuanced now. They don’t want it on their platforms.
In more severe cases, you may need to go to police.
BUP: What do you want parents to know about balancing technology and family time?
SB: It’s okay to restrict time on phones, which is easy to do with the Smart Family controls. It’s absolutely wise follow the American Academy of Pediatric’s recommendation of turning phones off an hour off before going to bed.
Speaking of bed, don’t use your phone as an alarm clock, and don’t let your kids do so, either.