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Over the weekend, I snuggled up with my family to enjoy the Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13. It’s the film Hanks uttered the iconic line: “Houston, we have a problem.”
The ordeal those astronauts went through showed us that all problems, no matter how dire, contain a solution.
For several years, I have felt like the Tom Hanks from Castaway, alone on an island yelling,“we have a problem in social media!” Sorry for all the Tom Hanks references, but he is great, isn’t he?
Now that people have begun to wake up to the realization that social media isn’t always great for us, I feel like the S.O.S. I’ve been sending while sitting on my lonely island has finally been noticed.
So it’s time to turn the smoke signal into a roaring fire because I am here again to emphatically say to my fellow parents...
I’ve received a couple of questions from fellow parents already:
1. ‘I am so grateful that my child is not exposed to anything on the Internet at home, but what can I do when my child is at a friend’s house?’
2. ‘How can I prevent what they are exposed to online?’
These are great questions! Many parents have grown up as these new technologies were exploding onto the scene. It’s a really interesting relationship that has developed and most parents don’t realize how the experience is completely different for our children as they enter these worlds.
Our children’s online world and interactions are directly connected and strongly influence their real-world experiences. The data on this relationship is clear. What our kids are exposed to in digital plays itself out in classrooms, hallways, playgrounds and in your home.
As parents, we have a tendency (myself included) to look at our own children with rose coloured glasses on. We think things like "my child would never do anything like those other kids" or "my child would never ask or receive nudes" and even "my child would never bully someone online."
But when we pay closer attention, the truth is that as long as our children have devices with internet access, the unsavoury side of the internet can make an appearance.
Whether your child sees these things at home or not, it does not matter because children interact with other kids, therefore, they will stumble across things no matter how protective you are. This is a problem we all face so in the spirit of Tom Hanks’ iconic line:
Many of us are blessed to live close to the water. When I had my babies, I joined a community of new parents. One of the first things we all did was put our children in swimming lessons. Why? We did not want them to drown, therefore, we gave them a life skill. We did not follow them everywhere in the water until they were 18, we gave them the skills to swim. We taught them, guided them, encouraged them and we did not admonish them if they couldn’t swim the length of the pool their first time in.
Over time we helped them to create a healthy relationship with water because we prepared them, that way if they ever fell into the water they would have the skills to help themselves. Most parents agree in teaching their kids life skills, yet how many of us have handed them a device and walked away? We all have, I still do and I live and breath technology! Yes, Houston, I have the same problem.
Fellow parents, I cannot stress enough: Every child with a wifi connection will ultimately drift out into the deep end of the internet. Do you teach them how to swim or wing it? As we help our children navigate the digital world, it is important that we are honest with ourselves about the reality of their digital world. At some point, your child will stumble across content that is not age appropriate. How do we teach them to handle these situations?
When carving out a healthy digital village the first rule of thumb is that as parents we are on the same team. All our kids are being affected by this and we should look out for each other.
Start to talk with other parents about ways to communicate about these issues. In the old days, we had a common set of rules to raise our children. When the streetlights came on, it was time to head home.
When you were at someone else’s home, you were respectful to their parents, and so on. We communicated as a village because the parents were on the same team but then digital arrived. Now there are no common rules, no common values and we don’t appear to be on the same team as parents.
We begin to believe in the isolation of events. Let me bust that myth: the only thing isolating about events in digital is the device itself, everything else is just a problem that we all can solve as long as we are on the same team, like the brave astronauts in Apollo 13.
As parents, we need to put technology back in its place. Do you teach your child right and wrong, or do you think the App you just downloaded is a better parent? Most technology companies never teach your child how to swim in the ocean of the Internet so please do not defer this job to someone else. You have your own code of ethics, your own ways to create boundaries but the first step is to say: Hey, Houston we have a problem and ALL kids are our responsibility, not just yours. Avoiding the water because you don’t want to teach them how to swim is done at your own peril but someday your child will see the water.
If you are seeking advice in the world of tech and how it affects you and your family, we encourage you to send an email to Askada@mazufamily.com and we will do our best to provide practical, insightful advice.
Janice Taylor is a social entrepreneur, mother, speaker, author and online safety advocate. Her credo of compassion, community and caring drives the vision of her company Mazu, a safe and fun online platform for families. Mazu gives parents a place to communicate, play and connect with their children in a starter social media environment.