Raising kids in an online world

My wife and I have had many discussions of late about how best to raise kids in an increasingly connected world. What I would like to share with you is how much change we’ve seen since we became parents nearly 20 years ago and some of the things we’ve done in order to make it all work.

A Little Background
All of my children grew up around computers and have had my hand-me-down machines in their rooms since a very early age. Since my oldest is now 19 and off in college, that means that a lot of their exposure pre-dated Internet access.

Initially having a computer in their room meant getting them educational software and games that helped with reading, geography and math. One of their favorites was the old Oregon Trail game; as a history teacher my wife loved those types of titles. Giving my kids extensive access to computers at an early age meant providing them with an advantage that I knew would help them later in life.

Connectivity Comes Along
In the late 90s I retrofitted our house with the wiring needed to connect all of our machines together, extending my basement LAN to the rest of the house. Now my kids could print their work out on the shared laser printer parked downstairs. Over time I began to let my kids gain access to the web, giving them tips for finding things through Alta-Vista and later Google.

With that connectivity came the first stages of our kids connecting to their friends through their computers. First off was e-mail, which didn't really work out that great with my kids. Too few of their friends had e-mail addresses and other than a couple of token e-mails to grandparents on the other side of the country not much changed for them.

Next came AIM, which my kids took to like ducks to water. During the time frame we allowed our kids to use AIM (after homework, before bed) you could hear a nearly constant pinging sound as they chatted up their friends. After that came MySpace and they were building up their personal profiles and communicating through that. Finally came FaceBook, which has basically become the primary way my kids plan to get together with their friends and share pictures.

Enter the Mobile Phone
I bought my kids their own mobile phones when they became teenagers, mainly so that we could give them the freedom they desired (and earned), yet satisfy our need to know where they were and be able to get in touch with them quickly. Initially I worried about how many minutes my kids would use and went with a large plan. Well, it turns out that was not a problem because my kids barely even talk on their mobile phones. Instead they text. A lot.

I’ve personally never been a huge fan of text messaging; often I can handle my communication needs by simply talking to someone on that same phone much more quickly. My text messaging tends to be quick, short blasts, not ongoing dialog. With my kids it’s much different however, especially with my youngest daughter. She can text using the phone’s shortcuts at a rate that rivals what many people can do with a full keyboard.

Parenting: Still a Contact Sport
So clearly in the time that I’ve been a parent the mediums of communication have changed dramatically, both for the better and the worse. On the bright side my kids have been exposed to—and become very comfortable with—much of the technology that drives business. My wife and I love being able to get in touch with our kids wherever they happen to be, helping us feel confident that they are safe. My kids have been able to easily maintain relationships with friends and family all over the country.

The information they need for school is instantly accessible. My youngest daughter’s school text books are available online through her school’s web portal, allowing her to quickly search for information. My son’s homework assignments can be found online and my oldest daughter at Virginia Tech can handle a large portion of her workload through a variety of web access points.

There is a downside however. I am always concerned about the content my kids view online. My wife and I are very active parents, talking to our kids regularly about what is and isn’t appropriate on the web. We have taken an “over the shoulder” approach to our kids, not monitoring logs or installing software like Net Nanny. The technique that’s worked for us has been pushing on our kids that we trust them, and that in return for that trust they need to act responsibly while online. I don’t think that works for everyone but it has worked well for us.

Of course occasionally our kids stray off the path and do something we do not approve of. This becomes an active parenting opportunity for us and if our kids don’t seem to “get it”, we’ve found a powerful form of punishment; simply take the offending device away for a while. I’m not a fan of physical punishment with my kids and this technique has worked extremely well.

Change Happens
If I have learned anything about being a parent in a pro-technology environment it's that the same value system you have for the real world needs to be extended into the technology world. When I started down the path of parenthood the Internet wasn't even accessible for the average person. Now internet access, social networking and instant communications are ubiquitous.

I share this information not because I think I have the answers on how best to raise kids in today's online environment. If anything, being a father for nearly 20 years has taught me tremendous humility; with such rapid advances in technology and collaboration everything is changing so quickly that I feel I'm aiming at a moving target.

My goal with this post was to open a dialog on raising kids in a connected world. If you’ve been through what I’ve been through, what has worked for you? If you are a young person fresh into adulthood what did your parents do right or wrong from your perspective? Know of a good resource for parents of children to turn to for figuring out how to pull this off? Please drop a note in the comments below.


Charles said...

The first step is to setup an account and change your router to use that as the DNS server. That will serve as your last line of defense and provide a 95% solution to web filtering. The second step is to make sure that your children have time limits. The third step is to put the computers they can use in a public space. Don't give them laptops or disallow the taking of laptops into their closed-door rooms. Beyond that it's a graduated process - start them off without chat or email and work them up as they get older.

Paul from San Diego said...

I have two small children 3 1/2 and 20 months. As parents we try to limit our children's screen time as much as possible (tv, computer). At this early age kids brains are still being wired and and you have to be very conscious of their screen time.

Having said that, computers can be a useful tool. Since my son can't type yet I can help him communicate with my family in the midwest by sending video messages through facebook. My son loves to tell them about his day or his latest knock-knock joke.

As our kids grow older and start using technology more it is going to be important for us as parents to be involved in their online activities.

It will also be important to help provide a balance between online and offline activities.

David Alison said...

@Charles and Paul: Thanks for the feedback guys. The most difficult time for me was when the kids were in middle-school and early high school (8th and 9th grade). That's the age when they stop being children and start to function more like very young adults. They tend to challenge you in ways they hadn't up to that point.

Paul, I agree completely on getting more involved as they get older. Just because they become proficient with the tech doesn't mean they know best how to use it.

MaxPug said...

I have to admin I never thought being a parent would be so fun. I have a 17 month old daughter and I am apprehensive what it will be like when she is old enough to really understand what can be done with a computer and what will be available. I remember when I got my first computer a Atari 800 xl and then a 300 baud modem back in 1982 or some time around there. All I can do is wait and see.

Victor said...

OpenDNS is something I also recommend to everyone (set at the router and on our laptops as well, for when we're at someone else's house). Our son is 8 years old and he mostly watches LEGO movies on YouTube or educational movies on BrainPop Jr., so his interaction online is limited to the occasional iChat with cousins; I had restrictive Parental Control settings in Leopard but have relaxed them somewhat. Every child is different, so parents will have to figure out what works for them as a family.

Kevin said...

I have four daughters, 26 years to 17 years. I didn't put any software on the computers to monitor e-mail. One day, I was informed by the parents of one of my third daughter's friends that she was involved in a cult. This is when she was fourteen. This wasn't a "computer/internet" only thing, but that is what enabled us to find out about it. The computer was in a public area of the house, and since it was mainly text based e-mail and sent through a web mail account, the over the shoulder method did not work. We were fortunate that her friend did not use a web mail account and his father "found an e-mail".