What you need to know about kids and screens 

In my new role as a school governor, one thing has struck me: many parents are not paying enough attention to what their children are doing while they’re on screens. Schools are trying to resource parents with information sessions and Safer Internet Days, but people in Surrey are busy and struggle to engage.

The internet has changed the world for this generation. When I grew up, children could safely watch TV in their rooms up until the 9pm watershed (with certain boundaries: you can tell a lot about Generation X’s parents from whether you were allowed to watch Grange Hill or EastEnders!). To contact someone you had to knock on their door or call their landline. Today things are far more complex; parents need to be intentional to help their children navigate this brave new world.

A teacher I know told me about a ten-year-old child who let slip that they were on Facebook. In under five minutes the teacher was able to find out where that child lived, who their parents were and what car they drove. The child and their parents were horrified, but the teacher said that this is an everyday occurrence for the primary school children they deal with.

If you were to unlock your smartphone and hand it to me, I bet I could look up something you wouldn’t want children to see within two minutes (not necessarily something you’ve looked at, but using your browser or social media). It is impossible to avoid this completely, but there are a number of sensible, practical things that parents can do.

(1) Talk to your kids – make sure they are used to talking to you about their feelings, about things which make them happy, sad, upset or uncomfortable. If they know you will listen to them without judgement then they are much more likely to disclose any problems they have. Talk about what’s online – how useful and wonderful it is as a source of information and a means to stay in touch, but also how people can misuse it. People who you meet online may not be who they say they are. Some people like experiencing things that would make you feel uncomfortable. Some use social media to bully others. Encourage your kids to talk to you about all these things and don’t overreact when they share something challenging with you. Be prepared for conversations when you least expect it and when it doesn’t suit you!

(2) Look at yourself first – think about how you are using screens – are you leading by example in your family? If you reach for your phone first thing in the morning and last thing at night or check social media whenever you have a free moment, you may be addicted. It may help to set a boundary: no screens for the first and last hour of each day, for example, or a screen-free day in your home. Check your own privacy settings regularly for all your social media, so that strangers cannot see more about you than you are comfortable to show.

(3) Set up filters on your broadband and all your screens – every UK broadband provider has to provide content filters, but if you haven’t changed broadband provider for a while, it’s worth checking what you’ve got set up. Check your home computer, laptops, phones, tablets, games consoles and TVs. Check the PEGI rating on games and apps, and whether you can speak to others online on them. Make sure Netflix/Amazon Prime/Now TV is set so that children can only access age-appropriate content.

(4) Set screen boundaries with your kids – many parents find time limits helpful, and there are apps which can help you to police these on your kids’ tech. Research shows that watching a screen within an hour of going to sleep has a negative impact on rest, so make sure tech is switched off early (and perhaps is out of children’s hands). As with anything in parenting, if you find you need to move a boundary, don’t be afraid to. Be firm but fair: social media can be highly addictive and using it overnight can lead to sleeplessness and consequential mental health problems including anxiety and depression, especially if your child becomes a victim of cyberbullying. Setting boundaries when your kids first get tech is much easier than rowing back on loose boundaries later.

(5) Set up your kids’ tech and social media – when your child has a new piece of tech, take responsibility for setting it up and don’t leave it to them. Make sure you set boundaries for downloading apps and spending money online, as lots of apps are free to download but then make it all too easy to buy extras. Most social media including Instagram, Pinterest, SnapChat, Twitter and Facebook recommend that under-13s do not sign up. When the time is right, sign your child up yourself and set their privacy settings for them. Keep their passwords safe and talk to them about how they will use social media – you may want to log into their accounts from time to time just to check they are safe, but talk to them about this and don’t invade their privacy unnecessarily.

(6) Brilliant advice on setting up social media – I have never seen this written down! When you set up social media, put in your child’s date of birth so that their age is 50-60. That way the ads they see will be things like life insurance and Saga holidays, rather than the more dubious stuff which gets sold to teenagers!

(7) Keep your eye on your kids – be interested in the media they are consuming and watch for anything untoward. No content filter will remove references to self-harm, the occult or suicide.

(8) Be ahead of the game – many parents find that issues come up sooner than they expect, so be prepared ahead of time. Your kids’ friends have older siblings and families with a variety of boundaries which won’t match your own.

None of this advice is distinctively Christian, but God is very concerned for what his people fill our minds with (see, for example, Colossians 3). Somewhere along the line, some parents lose confidence that their children are their responsibility until they are 18 and that you set the boundaries in your own home. As a parent you are a leader at home; for any leader, you cannot always expect to be liked or appreciated by the people you lead! Whether or not you have children, do pray for families you know as they navigate our complex modern culture.

Mark Wallace, 05/03/2019