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Use Parental Controls to Build Trust, Not Erode It

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Our kids are always a couple steps ahead of us when it comes to technology. Though tempting, this means that it doesn't work well to install parental controls, close our eyes, cross our fingers, and hope for digital greatness. Study after study shows that conversations with our kids about who they are hanging out with and what they are up to in digital spaces are far more powerful than any piece of software.

That's not to say that parental controls don't have a place in our parenting toolkit. But how we use them though has a huge impact on whether or not they are effective in helping our kids build positive digital skills and whether or not they build or erode trust.

Parental controls: Control vs. Connection

If we approach parental controls as a way to spy on our kids or catch them sneaking around in digital space, things don't usually end well. While tightly controlling and monitoring screen time has a place in the early years, these kinds of control-based strategies can backfire as our kids get older. Setting up "gotcha" moments tends to either shut down communication or send our kids to more remote corners of the internet.

Instead, try thinking about parental controls as a conversation starter. You have set up an important container by using parental controls. Now within that container, see if you can use these tools to better understand the context of your kids' online behavior, open up lines of communication, and build trust over time.

Here are some tips for getting started:

  • Start with a conversation. Discuss what safety, kindness, and privacy look like online. Parental controls help verify that everyone in the family is making good choices - only you can teach them these skills.
  • Create agreements. A good old fashioned family media agreement helps everyone in the family create the rules together. This can be a time to not only name what is off limits but to name how you do want to use technology as a family (for example, to connect, learn, be entertained, etc..). This conversation and document becomes something you can revisit over time and come back to if you hit challenges.
  • Tell them first, then install. The goal is to encourage responsible behavior, not to catch your kids being bad. Be clear that all devices will have parental controls before you set them up.
  • Explain why. Tell your kids why you are setting parental controls but make it clear that it is not up for negotiation.
  • Assure your kids that you are not a spy. Explain to your kids that you will not be reading every line of every text or post. You will merely be scanning things periodically or reading summary reports to verify that all is well.
  • Follow through. Hold up your end of the agreement - don't read every line of your child's texts and posts! Parental control should build trust between you and your child, not erode it.
  • Don't jump to conclusions. We often read texts and posts with very little context. Start by asking your child for context, explanation, or background of what you've seen. Ask your child to reflect before you launch into a long lecture. It is okay for there to be long silences as your child sorts through their feelings about online interactions.
  • Establish boundaries. Decide early on what constitutes behavior that crosses the line and how you will respond. Make sure your child understands these boundaries and follow through consistently when you see it.
  • Involve your kids. Monitoring software not only gives you a window into your child's digital life but ideally holds up mirror to your child themselves. For example, sometimes our kids don't realize how often they multitask or get distracted. The best tools not only help us see behaviors but help our kids "see" their tech habits too.
  • Again, use Internet "incidents" as an opportunity to communicate. Make sure that Internet incidents aren't just a platform for endless lectures or meaningless punishments. If your child is using the search term "sex" it could be that they genuinely want information about sex and sexuality. Use this as an opportunity to start important conversations, not shut them down. Here are some tips on how to talk to teenagers.

P.S. Looking for ways not just to monitor content but to make it easier to put your phones down and focus on something besides a screen? Check out Three Apps That Will Help You Put Your Phone Down.

P.P.S. You might notice that we didn't review any specific parental controls. That's where Common Sense Media's Ultimate Guide to Parental Controls comes in!


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