Is too much screen time damaging my kid?

This month’s column in BayState Parent encourages parents to rethink screen time for children.

recent 60 Minutes segment reports on a landmark study of more than 11,000 kids to gauge the effect screen time is having on their brains. Initial brain scans from the study conclude that children who spend more than seven hours a day on screens experience premature thinning of the cortex. The report also notes that younger children who have more than two hours of screen time a day receive lower scores on tests focused on thinking and language skills.

With devices everywhere now, how can parents place acceptable limits on screen time? Check out my CyberSavvy Mom column for advice.


Help! My kid is searching for inappropriate content online!

It’s been a difficult week here in Cyber Savvy Mom’s house. In the journey to raise Cyber Savvy Kids (CSKs), I’m finding a child’s internet prowess and comfort can also rear its head in a very ugly direction known as “the sneaky web search.” At the tender age of 8, Cyber Savvy Kid #1 (herein referred to as CSK #1) is already Googling inappropriate terms, and it’s scaring the bejeezus out of me.

I know, I know what you’re thinking: “But, Cyber Savvy Mom! You’re the one who is supposed to be the voice of reassurance in these situations. You’re the one who told us all to “Keep Calm and Carry On” in the face of all this internet danger.”

It’s true. I, Cyber Savvy Mom, write about online safety and security for a living. I, Cyber Savvy Mom, interview some of the leading minds in the security industry on a daily basis. I, Cyber Savvy Mom, thinks she can smell an online scam a mile away. But I, Cyber Savvy Mom, have thus far had NO SUCCESS with getting the little 8-year-old sneaky booger living under my own roof to stop looking up words like “sex” and Googling terms like “Sponge Bob looking at boobs.” (Yes, these really are the terms I am finding on his search history.) I am torn between fits of hysterical laughter, confusion and and urge to run into traffic at the thought of it all.

“He’s only 8! This is just going to get worse!” my husband exclaimed last night after we found out he had been at it again. I shook my head silently in agreement.

For now, the devices are banned. But we all know that won’t last. Those of you who don’t allow your kids to use iPods or computers can all smirk sanctimoniously at me and declare that evil, internet-accessing devices are ruining our kids lives and I’d be best served to make the ban permanent. But I don’t buy it. And anytime I do implement a temporary ban on devices, it becomes just as much a punishment to me, as it is to the kids. There are only so many rounds of Hungry, Hungry Hippos a mom can play. There are only so many pages of Harry Potter my voice can stand to read in one day. Let’s face it: I need a break sometimes – and the devices will inevitably be back out soon.

So, short of never letting him use a computer or iPod again, I need to find a long-term strategy for getting my kid to stop Googling words that will inevitably lead him to inappropriate content he is too young to understand.

I’m starting with these strategies:

Open dialogue: Time and again, I’ve heard experts advise that the the most powerful tool a parent has in helping their children stay safe online is a good relationship. Talk to your child about what they might find online if they search certain terms. Don’t get angry. It is natural for kids to be curious. Calmly explain to them and be consistent in your message that many things they find online might be upsetting and confusing to them at their age – and that they need to stay in online places that parents have already pre-approved. Encourage them to let you know if they find something online that makes them uncomfortable.

Device use only in family areas: This is a point I have been lax about lately. I let CSK #1 use his iPod in the morning (he is always the first to get up each day in our house) when I am still snoozing. That can’t be allowed any more. From now on, device and computer use only when mom or dad are in the room and only if we check in on him regularly.

Use the tools that are available to help: There are many tools out there designed to help you control what your child is viewing online. I’ll admit to getting lazy since both of my CSKs got iPods at Christmas. A lot of what I was using on our home computer has been completely over looked on the mobile devices. I need to make a plan now, and start incorporating tools such as mobile security software, as well as directing my kids to search only with the Child Safe Search on Google.

Try and make internet safety fun with light educational games:                                              There are several web sites out there with programs that aim to teach kids of varying ages how to stay safe online. They include Net Smartz Kids by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and The FBI’s online safety web site Safe Online Surfing.

Have your kids been caught searching for questionable content online? If so, how did you respond? Your comments welcome!

4 tips to help your kid stay stafe on Facebook

How young is too young for Facebook? The rules say no one under 13, but many parents seem to disagree

Facebook says you need to be 13 to have an account, but – rules be damned!! Many 11 and 12 year-olds are already using the social network, and, here’s a surprising little tidbit: Their parents are helping them create the account!

This is according to research out this month from the Internet journal First Monday. Researchers polled 1,007 parents of children between the ages of 10 and 14 about how they feel with regard to Internet-age restrictions.

Among their findings:

– Parents of 13- and 14-year-olds said, on average, their child joined Facebook at age 12.
– More than half of the parents of 12-year-olds said their child had a Facebook account; 82 percent of those parents knew when their child signed up; 76 percent assisted their 12-year-old in creating the account.
– More than three-quarters of parents said it was acceptable for their child to violate minimum-age restrictions on online services.

This goes against rules created by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), legislation passed several years ago which seeks to empower parents by requiring commercial Web site operators to obtain parental consent before collecting data from children under 13. But apparently, many parents with kids under 13 think their children can handle themselves on Facebook and are actually letting them fudge their birthdate in order to create a profile.

The authors of this study point out that many parents know, and are even enabling, their kids to get on Facebook prior to the age of 13. They say things like “all of my daughter’s friends are already on Facebook.”

I’ll let you read the study yourself to draw your own conclusions about whether or not you think kids under 13 should be on Facebook. But let me weigh in with my opinion, as your friendly Cyber Savvy Mom.

If you think your child is ready to use Facebook at an age that is younger than 13, that is your opinion, and I don’t think it is right or wrong. You know what your child is capable of and should act accordingly.

But, keep in mind the risks that exist once your child is on Facebook; where they will share information about themselves with other “friends” in their network. They will share photos, videos, thoughts, at times even their location. And there are no guarantees each “friend” will be who they say they are. Fake profiles are created all the time on Facebook. There are also scams all over the network that can trap unsuspecting members. Children would be very vulnerable to falling into some of these traps. Check out my list of scams to recognize the common traps.

That said, there are several steps I think parents need to take before allowing their kid, regardless of age, to create a profile on any site. Here are my basic recommended steps to encourage secure behavior on Facebook.

1.)    Use the network yourself: If you are familiar with the inner workings of Facebook and Twitter, you are more able to know what can go on, what mistakes can be made, what information kind of can be shared, and give advice based on first-hand knowledge. You run less of a risk of seemingly like the “lame parent” who “just doesn’t get it” if you are using the networks yourself.

2.)    Insist they give you their password, check it regularly: It is one thing to tell them you need to have their password. That’s a great first step. But then you need to do regularly, random check ins with to ensure that the one they gave you is still the actual password. If they have changed it without consulting you, that is grounds for losing computer privileges.

3.)    Keep computer use to common areas of the home: Children are more likely to engage in unsafe and questionable behaviors and conversations online when they are along. Computer use, particularly online activity, needs to take place in an area where the entire family is typically located.

4.) Have regular conversations: Talk with your child openly and regularly about issues such as cyber bullying, safe and responsible computer use and don’t be afraid to speak frankly about the type of people that can lurk on social networks, interactive games and chat boards looking for kids to target. Knowledge is power. You’re not trying to scare them, but they also need to be prepared for how to react if they are manipulated online by someone, or bullied by another peer.

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