Establishing Family Rules Regarding Electronic Content

Uh-oh! Jonny Can Read

From a family acceptable use perspective, things start to get rapidly more challenging in grades 2-4. Three significant developments occur that will change your child’s relationship to electronic devices: First, he or she will learn to read, spell, and hunt-and-peck on a keyboard, all of which means that your child can start interacting with devices in more sophisticated ways and can even get himself or herself to various Web sites online; Second, he or she will begin learning from peers and siblings about interesting things that can be done online; and Third, he or she will reach the outer fringes of actual device “ownership” (or at least primary control and use). Each development raises serious issues that should be discussed both by parents and by the family as a whole.

The ability to read and to use written language to communicate opens up entire new worlds for your child, but in the Internet era, that can be a decidedly mixed blessing. Of course, it’s not like older generations never stumbled across — or went looking for — reading material of which they knew their parents wouldn’t approve. The truth of the matter, however, is that kids today can stumble across far more shocking and explicit material than even the most wayward child could find twenty years ago.

For children in the early years of elementary school, there’s little need just yet to get too precise or descriptive about what they should or should not look at online. Assuming that he or she is still observing the basic rules for electronic devices — asking permission, telling you what he or she wants to do online, and using the device in a public space — you’ll be able to keep a pretty close eye on what’s going on and can step in quickly if he or she starts stumbling into one of the Internet’s more Knockturnal alleys.

This is probably an appropriate time, however, to investigate and consider purchasing one of the many software packages that will block most (but not all!) of the potentially objectionable content. In the early grades of elementary school, your child’s level of electronic sophistication will not be particularly high, and the commercial programs available will do a fairly good job of blocking the most objectionable sites. It’s important to remember, however, that it is difficult for any software package to block everything you might find objectionable, especially when confronted by a savvy middle or high school student.

If you do decide to install Internet filtering or logging software, should you tell your child that you have done so? I strongly believe that you should. First, I’m opposed to hidden surveillance as a matter of principle, because I think everyone — child, student, employee, citizen — has a fundamental right to know when their actions are being observed and potentially recorded, even if those actions take place in public.

Second, hidden surveillance rarely remains hidden, particularly if you feel the need to act on what you learn. I think the discovery of secret surveillance will damage a child’s trust in you as a guardian, and make it less likely that he or she will confide in you if something goes wrong.

And third, I think the installation of filtering software is a great opportunity to discuss with your child some of the issues raised in this blog and in Cybertraps for the Young. Your child may not like the idea that filtering software has been installed (although the younger children won’t care as much), but children of all ages will appreciate the opportunity to participate in a discussion about what is and is not appropriate. It is precisely the type of communication-building exercise that will make later electronics issues a bit easier to handle.

Hey, Check Out What My Older Brother Showed Me!

Parents who choose to homeschool their children have multiple reasons for doing so, but near the top of the list must be this: delaying, if only for a little bit, their children’s random and unpredictable exposure to the media watched and discussed by friends and classmates.

The start of school is as big a transition for parents as it is for kids (if not more so). For 5 or 6 years, you’ve been their primary if not exclusive source of information, entertainment, and media. All of sudden, your child is spending multiple hours per day with other kids, all of whom come from households with varying cultural and social values. By 3rd or 4th grade, your child is on a rapidly accelerating trajectory into the inescapable orbit of peer influence. By middle school, some researchers argue, a child’s peer group in school is as important to their development as their parents, and in some circumstances, can even trump the most careful pre-school upbringing.

Fortunately, not all researchers agree. Other studies have concluded that parents remain “the single most important factor in helping children and adolescents grow up healthy,” and that in times of crisis or critical decision-making, children turn most often to parents. The challenge is to remain a positive influence in their decision-making process during non-crisis situations, such as deciding what movie to watch or which Web site to visit.

As a practical matter, there’s little chance of completely protecting any child from exposure to undesirable media; it was difficult enough when cable television came along in the early 1980s, and it’s virtually impossible in the Internet era. The key is to remain a consistent part of the conversation about your child’s media choices, and a Family Acceptable Use Policy can help you do that.

In the pre-school and early years of elementary school, there isn’t much point to actually writing up an FAUP, unless the process of doing so is helpful to you and your spouse. But as your child progresses into 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade, they’re old enough to read and understand some basic written concepts. Sitting down with them to draft an FAUP is a great opportunity to remind them that there are certain core values you want them to follow, and that while some households may have different values, you think it is important that they avoid watching certain types of movies or visiting inappropriate Web sites.

You’ll need to make some strategic decisions as you put together an FAUP for your elementary school student. For instance:

  • If you don’t want your child to watch anything contrary to your social values (i.e., violence, alcohol and drug use, profanity and vulgarity, sexually-explicit conduct, etc.) while at someone else’s house, how much do you tell him or her yourself about those kinds of materials?
  • What do you expect your child’s response to be if someone starts watching inappropriate content? Tell an adult in the house? Call you? Leave and walk home? Each option has different social and safety implications, which should be discussed ahead of time. (You can help your child by talking to the parents of his or her friends ahead of time, and discussing what the media rules are in the friend’s home.)
  • Are there any gray areas that may cause problems? If you don’t want your child viewing violence, does that mean that he or she can’t watch “Bugs Bunny” or “Sponge Bob Squarepants”?
  • Are there types of devices (smart phones or video game consoles, for instance) that you would prefer your child not use?

These are just a sampling of the complicated questions to sort out, but they are merely early storm warnings for the much more challenging issues raised by middle-school and high school-aged children.

Third-Graders with Smart Phones?

As if things aren’t complicated enough, another issue that you’ll begin to face in elementary school is device-creep. In part because of the relentless upgrade cycle of electronics (which creates a ready supply of hand-me-downs), and in part because the advertisements are readily understandable by and often pitched directly at young children, there will be a surprising number of your child’s elementary school classmates who have ready access to one or more video consoles, laptop computers, tablet computers, or cell phones.

The statistics are really startling. in 2005, for instance, 12% of all elementary students in the United States had their own cell phones. That figure has since nearly doubled; now 1 in 5 elementary students is carrying his or her own cell phone.

Regardless of what electronic devices you and your spouse decide to provide to your child, he or she will undoubtedly have a chance to play with a wide variety of others. It’s not realistic (and really not fair) to expect your child to turn down every opportunity to try out shiny electronic toys, simply because you’ve made the decision not to buy them for your own household.

At the same time, it is reasonable to expect your child to respect your values and your rules regarding how devices are used. Put another way, if you and your child have agreed that devices should not be used to bully other kids or access content you find objectionable, he or she should not do so simply because she’s using someone else’s laptop or smart phone.

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