6 Essential Tips to help Tweens live a Healthy Digital Life

picture youthMy eldest is keeping a close count on how many school days are left. Today is day 40. Last night, I had my final middle school parent ed talk for this year. It has been a tremendous year for KidsPrivacy. I published my first book, expanded my blog readership and visited many middle and elementary schools. As I drove home, I kept thinking about next year. While it is exciting to think about new posts, talks and workshops, I still have 40 days left. Before I close out this year, I wanted share a few more tips from my book, Talking Digital, for middle school parents. Here are my 6 essential tips to help your tween live a healthy digital life.

Provide Balance

At this age, screen time can explode. This perfect storm occurs with the novelty of a new phone coupled with the need to go online for school. During middle school, their textbooks, assignments, group projects all move online. Trying to control screen time is a challenge. As they hop about online, it is difficult to discern whether they are collaborating on a group geography project or have moved on to chatting about Pretty Little Liars. When parents try to impose time limits, a tween is likely to counter with “so it’s OK if I flunk math.” At this age, parents should try to rein it in by keeping laptops and devices out of their bedroom, creating screen free dinners, and setting a bedtime for all devices.

Stay Engaged

At this age, kids are probably hoping to join their first social network. Usually, everyone in school is on the same one. While these networks can be fantastic for keeping in touch with friends, they can also be a source of drama. At this stage, you want to keep a close eye on things. Be upfront about your concerns and make sure you have built in opportunities to coach them. Middle schoolers often think texts and instant messages are completely private. This is not the case. When they send a message even to a friend, they can take a screenshot and share that message with a wider audience. Texts and messages, between friends, appear on Instagram, Twitter and other social media. Nothing is ever 100% private in the digital world. For more information on apps, I have list of  parenting guides for the most popular social networks.

Create or Update your Family Phone Contract

It is important that everyone be on the same page. Sitting down together and drafting a contract is a great way to share values and expectations around appropriate online behavior. These agreements can range from a few simple rules to multi-page documents. Whatever their length, a contract outlines rules, expectations and consequences. Children should know these contracts are not punitive but designed to keep them safe while teaching them to share smart online. For ideas on what to include, I have a family device contract and Media!Tech!Parenting! has a list of online contracts.

It is tempting not to write all these rules down. In theory, talking should be enough. I believed this until my kids told me otherwise. One day, I asked my children what our family rules were regarding the internet and they all replied that we had no rules. Apparently, talk is talk and a rule is written down. To be safe, I would recommend taking the time to write up the policy and post it on the refrigerator or in the family room.

Ask before you Post

What we choose to post and what others share about us shape our digital reputations. Parents need to teach children to respect other people’s privacy by asking permission first before posting. They should not post pictures of their friends or anyone else without asking. A great way to model this rule is for parents to ask their kids before posting a photo online. An important life skill in the digital age is the control and management of our digital reputations.

Utilize Privacy Settings

For tweens, sharing online can feel more like chatting with friends or writing in a diary rather than broadcasting worldwide. Online information is usually public and private only by effort. Although there are no privacy guarantees online, kids should still try to control their content by using privacy settings. When they decide to join a network, make sure they review and utilize the available privacy settings. When at all possible they should set their posts and profiles to private. Most tweens are looking to share with their friends and classmates. Their privacy settings should match their intent.

Keep a Secure Device

Kids should keep a secure device by setting a strong password, keeping apps updated and downloading apps from trusted app stores. A strong password can stop someone from picking up their phone and seeing all of their information or tampering with their Twitter or Facebook profiles. Right after setting a password, keeping apps current is one of the easiest and best security safeguards. They should not ignore those updates for apps or their operating system on their phones. Many of these updates contain important security patches that will protect their device. Finally, criminals tend to publish malicious applications outside of trusted app stores. Kids should only download apps from legitimate sources.