Our world increasingly integrates technology with all aspects of life, like friendship, communication, business, play, academics, and romance. The internet can be a place where people come to learn, grow, and connect–and also a place that can tear people down, cost people money, and expose them to terrible things.

Parents can feel overwhelmed in this new digital landscape. We know that teaching our kids to succeed with technology and navigate the internet skillfully is key to the future of their academic, social, and career success. But since technology is changing faster than ever before, and new apps and hardware launch everyday, it can be difficult to keep up.

We need more than just a list of rules for how to use Snapchat safely–although that list might be important! We need to help our kids learn general principles and virtues that will guide them through the internet, no matter what app or new smartphone they’re using.

While you can put guidelines and restrictions in place now to keep kids safe, it’s important to teach them about technology so that they can learn to protect themselves. Eventually, search restrictions and form submissions will be open and available to your kids as they age and gain independence.

We got in touch with Fairfax, VA counselor and therapist Willow Rose Smith to get some insight into how to keep your kids safe in the online world. Willow is a resident in Counseling and resident in Marriage & Family Therapy associated with Synergy Counseling.

Open Communication

Willow says that communication is one of the most important principles that you can instill to keep your kids safe online. As much as we want to protect our kids, we can’t predict everything. Establishing trust between parents and children is critical to keeping communication open, and helping adolescents open up about their feelings.

Willow didn’t ask us to plug this one, but we will! She’s an expert in providing therapeutic insight and psychoeducation to families, and is passionate about helping children and adolescents become vulnerable with their feelings. Family therapy can help open conversations and emotions, and help communication become stronger.

Dealing with the Bad Parts of Technology

Unfortunately, everything that we do in life has the opportunity to hurt us. Soccer is really fun for kids, but has the danger of injuries and insecurities. Cooking is a great skill for kids to learn, but knives and heat must be handled with care. Technology is no different. The good benefits of friendships on social media and the fun of video games or app games have their own potential dangers.

Willow recommends approaching the sensitive issues of social media comparisons and cyber bullying with compassion and understanding. These issues can make kids feel alone and isolated, and your words and alternative narratives about who they are and how valuable they are will be incredibly important. Help them process their own feelings and set up boundaries that will keep them safe. Deal with cyberbullying by blocking certain people or leaving websites altogether. Help kids work through comparison games on social media by helping them understand how social media presents curated, enhanced versions of people’s lives.

The signs of video game addiction, Willow says, include an inability to stop playing, becoming upset when unable to play, losing interest in other activities, and irritability or depression from a lack of video games. Excessive video games may be a source of escapism or alternative fun for you child. Parents who don’t enjoy video games themselves often get frustrated by this–but instead of anger toward the video games, it might be best to see if you can identify the things that are contributing to a video game addiction. Maybe encourage friendships, other activities, and limit the time spent on games.

Affirmation for Good Usage of Technology

Technology isn’t inherently bad, but it can be used in destructive ways in your child’s life. Willow recommends that parents remember the benefits of technology in their childrens’ lives, and stresses that affirming the positive uses of technology can create a deeper connection with your child or teen:

“Often, parents do not understand social networking and video games stimulate connection and a concept of universality among friends, provides a sense of accomplishment, and initiates fun and enjoyment without the pressures of sports or other external stressors. Above all else, exercising compassion and acknowledging the benefits of social media, video gaming, and other technology gadgets can provide empathy, support, and a deeper connection with your child or teen. This insight can lead to more productive conversations around safety, creativity, productivity, and emotional regulation within the family.”

3 Additional Ways to Keep Kids Safe

Open communication helps you deal with the bad parts of technology while affirming the good parts of it. Technology can and will be a part of our kids’ lives as they age, and having open dialogues about the purposes of technology and the dangers of it is important. We won’t help our kids become smart, safe users of technology by either failing to talk about it or by treating all technology and digital space as bad.

But of course, communication can only go so far. We should also have some rules and restrictions in place to help our kids learn the internet in safe ways.

Rules like these should always be made in conversations with your children about the purpose of the rules. Don’t just lay down arbitrary numbers and times. Talk to your kids about how you want them to grow and flourish. Video games are great, but sleep and school are more important. Social media is awesome, but it can distract from homework. Have open dialogues with your kids about the rules surrounding technology usage in your house and the purposes for those rules.

Willow offers three principles to help parents keep their kids safe with technology.

1. Limit Technology Usage

You may want to limit the amount of time that your kids may spend online in a given day, or even have appropriate times and conditions to access the internet. For example, you may decide that video games can only be played when all homework and responsibilities are accomplished, and even then you might decide that video games should only be played for an hour or until 10pm.

You might set an amount of time that your child can play app games, use social media, or text friends. You might make a rule that kids can’t text after 9pm on weeknights, or that social media can only be used on weekends.

2. Use Security Tools and Privacy Features

Block sites and keep safe search on to keep kids from accessing adult content, or from stumbling upon it without meaning to.

3. Educate Kids about Personal Privacy

Social security numbers, bank account information, birthdays, names, and passwords are important information that should only be given out for certain purposes to trusted companies and sources. Help your kids understand internet scams and identity theft, and make sure they know not to give out any sensitive information without checking with you first.

Special thanks to Willow Rose Smith, MA, NCC, for her contribution. You can find contact information and schedule a session with Willow at her page on Psychology Today.

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