No one thought the rollout of Melania Trump’s “Be Best” campaign against cyberbullying was going to go perfectly. How could a woman married to our cyberbully-in-chief be credible on this issue?
But then came the news that the first lady’s staff had lifted her 27-page pamphlet on the subject almost word for word from one published by the Federal Trade Commission during the Obama administration. Without excusing what was either plagiarism or clumsy rebranding, it is not surprising that Trump and her predecessors would have similar takes on the subject — almost everyone gives the same advice. The real problem is that the suggestions are unlikely to change kids’ behavior.
Don’t get me wrong, the ideas in “Talking With Kids About Being Online” are fine as far as they go. But they don’t go far enough. The pamphlet advises using different kinds of filters and parental controls, making sure devices are password protected and search engines are kid friendly. For “young children” it advises, “supervision is important.” This guidance seems to be tailored to kids through age 7. But frankly, “supervision is important” long after that.
According to a survey of 400 parents I commissioned in 2016, almost 90% of parents think they are good or very good at monitoring their kids’ use of technology. But that confidence level falls significantly as children get older. Indeed, if their oldest child is between 13 and 17, 47% of my respondents believe their children are hiding what they do online. The security firm Kaspersky Lab surveyed kids on the subject: 42% of 10-year-olds believe they have the technological capability to keep their online activities from their parents.
Too many parents take the view that if they talk to their kids enough about the dangers of certain online activities — a strategy both the first lady and the Obama administration have emphasized — then they will be safe.
Of course, parents should tell kids, as the pamphlet says, that “not everything they see on the internet is true, information or images they share can be seen far and wide, people online may not be who they appear to be or say they are, [and] once something is posted online, it’s nearly impossible to ‘take it back.’” But there are plenty of adults who hear these messages and don’t heed them. Why do we think tweens and teens will?
Peter Whybrow, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist who runs the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, underlines the problem: Electronic “devices tie into a section of the brain that is ancient and reward-driven,” he told me. The brain “is based on very simple principles. If something works for you, you want to do it again.”
And there is no doubt that social media — with its constant stream of “likes” — is rewarding the teen brain.
Just as we know that kids have poor impulse control when it comes to decisions about sex, driving and how much to drink, it turns out they may also have difficulty self-regulating when it comes to online behavior.
Maybe it seems overwrought to compare the use of social media to sex and unsafe driving, which can have life-altering implications. But if we’ve learned anything from the rising rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among teens — resulting at least in part from the isolation of a life spent on screens, from trolling and from the distribution of embarrassing photos — it is that online behavior can also have life-altering implications. It’s even possible, as Jean Twenge points out in her book, “iGen,” that teens are taking more risks online and fewer in real life.
Get your kids in the habit of assuming that you can always see what they’re doing. And so can everyone else.
It may be that, just as we don’t think kids are capable of operating a car responsibly until they are older, we should not expect them to exhibit mature behavior online until they are older. I’m not suggesting that we need politicians to police this by setting age limits on phone ownership or use. As it is, too many parents assume that someone else — either government regulators, schools or tech companies (ha!) — is going to protect their children online. It should be clear by now that the companies want to get kids hooked as young as possible, and the government has no idea what Facebook is up to.
For parents who want to do more to ensure that their kids are safe and healthy online, here are some ideas that involve a little less talk and a little more action.
Keep all devices in public places. No laptops in the bedroom. Get your kids in the habit of assuming that you can always see what they’re doing. And so can everyone else.
Try some dramatic ways of reminding kids that their social media lives are public — one pastor told me he put poster-sized screenshots of kids’ Facebook posts on the walls of the church so they would know he (and other adults) could see them.
Wait as long as possible to give children a smartphone — certainly not before high school, and even then, make it clear it’s your phone and you’re just letting them use it. You can check it when you like and take it back if it’s being used inappropriately.
Finally, severely restrict the amount of time your kids spend on devices. Face-to-face interactions with people in the flesh are the foundation that truly helps kids “be [their] best.”
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute studying child welfare issues. Her latest book is “Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat.”
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