How Chelsea Uses Technology
I love technology—so much that I chose a career as an information security consultant. But I also hate it. I have seen the families of close friends torn apart by technology addictions. And I regularly deal with issues from identity theft to cyber bullying to pornography when consulting with families.
I notice that many of my clients approach technology from a place of fear, and their instinct is to just take it all away from their kids at the first sign of trouble. Others go to the other extreme and assume that just talking to their kids about it is enough.
My goal is to make technology a safe playground for my three kids (ages 5, 4, and 1). Just like a physical playground has safety rules, a fence, and a few moms keeping watch, we can create a safe place to explore technology in our homes. It’s just a matter of having two or three extra security measures in place—a system that is not ridiculously complicated to manage—and maybe talking to an expert who can tell you where your weaknesses are and how to fix them.
The Internet is not safe by default. It was just created to share information. It’s up to us to create a safe place within the digital environment, with digital boundaries such as parental controls, monitoring software, and a filter at your router and phone network; and also physical boundaries such as rules about using technology in open spaces and not bedrooms, turning in phones at a specific time each day, etc.
I believe that every family should come up with their own customized tech-safety plan so they can use technology safely and intentionally.
Define Technology Goals
When you’re coming up with a tech-safety plan, start by defining your goals for technology. For example, my husband and I have decided that our ultimate goal for technology is to use it to enhance social bonding. If we let technology overtake our home—if the TV’s always on and we’re always on our phones—we dissolve into this digital realm, and there’s no time for stillness and peacefulness and no foundation for a safe place. But if we use it to interact with each other—discussing a show we're watching or enjoying a game together—technology can actually enhance our interactions with each other.
One good example of how we use technology to build relationships is with the Facetime app. We use it to talk to our kids when they have a babysitter, or to talk to long-distance family. When we go back to visit family my kids know them and recognize their faces and voices because we've Facetimed with them.
Another great goal for technology is for education. Right now, my kids are really young, so if we have a problem like potty training or arguing with each other, we’ll find a program that will help with the problem and talk about it together. The internet is obviously a great educational resource for families, if used intentionally.
Again, don't let fear dictate your goals. This is understandable, especially with my clients who are coming to me because they're already having a problem. But try to set positive goals about how you want to use technology, and let that lead your planning. I need this reminder too. With my background, I can get a little carried away with securing our home. My husband sometimes has to bring me around and tell me I’m being a little too paranoid.
Set Physical Boundaries
The first layer of information security in your home are physical boundaries. With young kids, this is pretty easy, since they don't have their own devices. But once they start needing to use the computer for school, we'll only allow computers in public places in our home—not in bedrooms or a closed office—so I can always see what's going on. Mobile devices will have the same rule: no devices in bedrooms, bathrooms, etc. When we establish these physical boundaries, our kids will learn how to socially interact and turn their phones off when it’s not appropriate to use them. They won't be addicted to them.
We also have a tech locker (see below), where we can lock up remote controls and phones. My husband and I have certain times that we lock up our devices so we can be more present. We also use it when we have parties at our house. My husband and I are both youth leaders at our church, so our house has become a teen hangout. We’ll have parties where we play retro video games, but then the next time, everyone puts their phones in the locker and we have a tech-free party. Nine times out of ten, the kids want the social interaction and don’t even want to be on their phones.
Set Digital Boundaries
When it comes to setting digital boundaries, the key is to have multiple layers of security. If you're not comfortable or knowledgable enough to set up your own digital security, you can hire an information security consultant, or a general IT consultant. Be sure to verify that whoever you hire is experienced with security practices and knows your safety parameters and family priorities and values.
The first and most important layer of digital security is your router. Unfortunately, setting up a wifi password is not enough. Many parents set up a network password, put an internet filter on the computer, and then assume that there’s no way that their children can get exposed to anything bad, but they don’t talk to them about school networks or what to do at a friend’s house.
Most routers will allow you to have guest networks, so when you have visitors you can give them access to that network only and you can decide what is accessible on that network. You can also set up parental controls on your router itself, as well as on individual devices and through your cell phone carrier. Monitoring software allows you to see what people access on specific devices as well. Again, it's best to have a professional train you on how to set all this up, so you don't mess up your internet connections or phones by accident.
I let teenagers know what our technology rules are when they come to my house, and that I can go in and see everything they've accessed. I tell them that it's OK if they access something they shouldn't accidentally, as long as they let me know what happened. They know how secure I am, and they're fine with my rules. And they know that if they break them, I'll confiscate their devices while they're at my house or I'll ask them to leave.
The most important thing about digital boundaries is to monitor and update them. Parents will set up security and then never check them to see that they’re working. They don’t check the computers to make sure they’re protected from viruses. They don't make sure their parental controls are working. And of course, you have to know when you've reached what I call the tipping point—the point where your kids know more about the technology than you do.
Be a Media Mentor
Right now, the only technology my kids really use is the TV. They're young enough that I can be really intentional with the shows we watch, so I choose good shows that move move slowly and teach good lessons, and have positive adult role models. Some of our favorites are Kipper (teaches great interpersonal skills), Daniel Tiger (problem-solving skills with memorable trigger phrases they can sing when they have a problem), Mr. Rogers, Reading Rainbow, Max and Ruby, and Backyardigans.
I'm really big on media mentoring, so I talk to them about what they're watching or ask them to retell it to me, sometimes even in the middle of a show. Discussing a show really helps them transition after watching. I'm not just coming in and abruptly turning it off. When you talk them down from the hyper-stimulated realm of TV—or any other virtual realm—and bring them back to their cognitive thinking brain instead of the animal brain, they tend to respond so well.
If you start conversations about technology when they're young, it will be easier to continue those conversations openly as they get older. Most of my tech conversations with teens has centered around cyber bullying and social media. I've found that the best approach is to talk to them like you're talking adults. I tell them about the problems I have when I overload on social media, such as self-image, comparison, and trying to figure out the perfect pictures to post. Then we can talk about what they struggle with and what kind of limits they want to set for themselves, like which apps to use and which to delete, or certain times of day they want to put their phones away.
When a teenager wants a new app, talk about their intentions. What do they want to use it for? What are the potential hazards? What do they plan to do if we—their parents—notice a problem with what they’re doing? What do they think would be an appropriate consequence and way to handle it?
Talking openly about what could happen opens the door to conversations when something actually does happen. It also puts parents in the mindset to be first responders instead of first reactors.
Teach Your Kids
As early as age eight, you should be talking to your kids about the dangers of technology. Teach them about viruses and spyware and how your devices can get them. (Yes, other devices besides computers can get viruses.) Teach them about what is and is not appropriate to post online, including personal information, cyber bullying, embarrassing photos, and other inappropriate content. Teach them what hacking is and that it is illegal. Teach them about identity theft and the biggest avenue for identity theft: filling out forms for giveaways, instant wins, free things, or text coupons.
And, of course, teach them about pornography. Talk about what it is, what to do when they see it, why it's bad, and how to avoid it. For example, gaming on smartphones or computers is one of the easiest ways for them to access inappropriate content. I teach my children to DEPART from unsafe content:
- Discern what is happening.
- Escape it.
- Protect yourself by talking to an adult about what happened.
- Assess how and why you came across it.
- Revise rules so it doesn’t happen again.
- Trust yourself to do better next time.
Introduce Technology Gradually
Another way to keep our digital playground safe is to introduce technology gradually. The key with young kids and technology is to watch them and figure out their limits. If my kids watch more than an hour of TV, they get hyper and antsy. So we’ll go outside and play, or teach them calming techniques.
We introduced the iPad a couple of years ago and realized it was way too early. I noticed a ton of behavioral problems while they were playing and after they stopped, so we took it away. We'll reintroduce it when they're older and have more impulse control.
My husband is a video game officionado, so he’s really excited to introduce our kids to the video games of his childhood. When we feel like they're mature enough to use them responsibly, we'll introduce non-violent, constructive games, starting with some of the vintage consoles my husband has collected.
I'm a big fan of families who start their kids with a flip phone instead of going straight to a smartphone. I'm not planning to introduce a smartphone until my kids are at least 16, and maybe closer to 18. The earlier they gain access to a smartphone, the earlier they surpass their parents' knowledge of how to use it and get around security measures.
Finally as you teach your children about technology, remember that they're human; they’re not going to be perfect. Remember this: security protocols (this includes parental controls) are designed to catch and remove mistakes people make and point out the vulnerabilities that they have on their system. For teens especially this is more true than ever. When you give them technology and expect them to be perfect and never make any mistakes, you are setting both of you up for failure. Be grateful they make mistakes while they’re in your home, where you can help them to minimize them.
For more information on how to create a safe virtual playground in your home, I've created a free class, which you can access through my website: themomlifecoach.com.
About the Author
Chelsea Brown is a mom-life coach for the digital age. She teaches safety classes for parents to set a secure foundation for tech safety and consults with individual families to develop customized tech-safety plans. She also blogs at www.themomlifecoach.com. Follow her on Instagram: @themomlifecoach.