Monday, December 16, 2019

This is What We Do With Media. What Do You Do?

I would love for someone to research what kinds of cultural changes took place in Tanzania starting in 2009. That's the year the the fiber-optic cable came to East Africa, bringing high-speed internet for the first time.

Before 2009, it cost 50 cents to send a text message. Internet came in by satellite and was agonizingly slow. We would beg people never to send us pictures by email because of the hours it would take to download them. Hours. Literally.

But starting in 2009, that all changed. And today, I spend the equivalent of $5 a month on my phone plan, which gives me all the calling and texting time I need. Our household spends about $30 a month on internet. We stream from Hulu and Netflix. We Skype. At HOPAC, I do everything on Google Apps (it's awesome!). Kids from fourth grade up have email addresses and are required to turn in assignments using Google Apps. I'm sure we're still "behind" the developed world technologically, but we are catching up fast.

But this is a whole new world in parenting, isn't it? And it's terrifying. How do we keep porn away from our kids? How do we keep out the predators? How do we teach them about healthy digital habits--when we struggle with it ourselves? How do we prepare them to handle cyber-bullying and sexting and social media pressure--knowing that we can shelter them from it for a while, but not forever? How do we train them to discern truth in the midst of all of the messages that bombard them through media?

Navigating this new world, we need each other. Not one of us can draw upon our own childhoods to help our kids through it. This is entirely new territory, for all of us.

So the purpose of this post is to share what our family does. Not because we have it all figured out, but because we don't. I would love to hear from others: What do you do? How do you navigate this new world with the kids in your sphere of influence? How do you keep them safe while still preparing for them for a digital world? Let's learn from each other.  

This is us:

1. Lily (age 10) has an iPod, Josiah (age 12) is getting an iPhone for Christmas (shhhh...don't tell him), and Grace (almost 14) has an iPhone. We also have a couple of Kindle Fires and a laptop that any of the kids can use, and Josiah recently purchased an Xbox One (which is his pride and joy). Parents get to know any passwords and are allowed to pick up and look through any device at any time.

2. Internet browsers are not installed on any of the devices. The only time our kids are allowed to browse the internet is for school purposes, which they can do on the "kids' computer." There is a very strong filter on that computer called Qustodio, which prevents almost all browsing. So when the kids need to do research for school, Gil or I have to put in a password to disable Qustodio for a specified length of time. Kids can only use the internet at the kitchen table within visibility of anyone walking by. The kids' laptop is never allowed in a kid's bedroom.

3. Kids are not allowed any screen time (for anything other than school work) on school days, with a couple of exceptions: Josiah gets 10 minutes a day on the ESPN app to check soccer scores, and Grace can use iMessage or WhatsApp several times a week for a limited amount of time. Grace also has unlimited access to the "notes" feature on her phone. (She journals a lot on her phone.) Grace is not allowed to WhatsApp boys without our permission (unless they are in a group chat). We'll give Josiah similar boundaries on his phone.

4. They are each allowed an hour of screen time on non-school days. For the boys, this is almost always Xbox (Fifa football in particular), and for the girls, they usually choose the YouTube Kids' app (often DIY craft videos). The kids can earn extra screen time in various ways (or get it taken away).

5. Gil has all of these devices synced to his phone. He is able to check in on exactly what they are watching and how much time they spend on a particular app. For Grace and Josiah, this means that we got them (used) iPhones. Though they were more expensive than other phones, the parental controls on them are much stronger, so it is worth it. All of the apps on all devices have time limits on them, they have curfews on them to disable at night, and no apps or advertisements can be accessed without parental permission. The devices are locked by parental settings that can be monitored and changed from any parental device.

6. A rule of thumb we use is, "If you ask, we might say yes. If you don't ask, you might lose a privilege." For example, if there's a song they want to listen to or a show they want to watch, if they ask first, then we will consider it. If they don't ask, but we see that they've watched or listened to something outside our boundaries, they might lose the device (or app, or privilege) for an amount of time. (We tried Spotify with these boundaries, but that wasn't successful. So Spotify didn't last on our kids' devices.)

7. We regularly talk to our kids about what is and isn't okay to put into your brain, and more importantly, why. We talk about the dangers of porn and how it's addicting and what it does to your brain and your relationships. We bribe them--literally--to let us know when they come across something that might not be okay. We say, "You will never be in trouble for telling us about something that you read or heard or saw that could harm you. In fact, this is so important that we will give you x amount of money when you tell us about these things." This was Gil's idea, and he did it because he wanted to take away the shame and secrecy that accompanies "forbidden fruit"--and so far, it seems to be working. The kids have done a good job of telling us when they come across something inappropriate. Our kids are still young and sheltered though....we know a lot more will hit all of us. But we're trying to set the stage now for wide open conversation down the road.

8. We put "worldview lessons" into our family devotion times. The kids love this, because it usually means that they get to watch a movie clip. We watch it together and then discuss: "What message is coming across in this scene? What are they trying to say about the world?" We routinely teach our kids that ideas are never morally neutral. Every book, every movie or TV show has a worldview. And if we aren't careful to root it out and understand it, we will find ourselves being influenced without our consent.

9. We are extremely careful about devices "from the outside." We rarely allow our kids to go to sleepovers, and when our kids' friends come to our house, their phones don't get our Wifi password. Our kids aren't allowed to watch or listen to anything on anyone else's device without asking permission first. This isn't always easy to enforce, because it's so easy for kids to get "sucked in" to someone else's device. When this does happen, we usually don't give out consequences (unless it was blatant disobedience), but we do have a talk (again) about why it's important to ask Mom and Dad first.

10. We have yet to navigate the social media world, which is fine by me. We've talked about it a bit with the older kids but they haven't really been interested since WhatsApp is what's most used in their friend groups. I read stuff like this and I want to keep my kids as far away from social media as possible. But I know the time will come when they will want it, so would love any advice on helping kids to navigate it.

I think what's most important to me is the family culture we are trying to create. "Screen time" is isolating, so when possible, we watch movies or play video games together. We are very careful about what the kids watch but we also have widened those boundaries as they get older--and we will continue to. We say things like, "You can't watch that now, but when you're older, you might choose to," because we want to create an expectation that they will become increasingly more responsible. We eat dinner together almost every night. We read novels together at bedtime and on family trips. We talk. A lot. We train our kids that this is a broken world so we have to be careful, but we also don't want to hide from it. We discuss what it means to "redeem the culture" and how to find echoes of God's story, even in a secular world.

The goal? A young adult who desires to live a life of holiness, not out of fear of punishment, but because he or she sees the value in it. Someone who knows how to think critically about media, how to discern truth from lies, and how to put down the phone and interact face to face.

Easier said than done, I know. We have not followed our own standards perfectly. We've had a couple of close calls that could have led down a dangerous road. But that's just made us more vigilant.

This is what we do. I'm sure there are some of you who feel we are being way too strict and some who feel we are too permissive. This is a hard line to walk! What do you do? Let's learn from each other.


Amy said...

We have similar rules to you - a bit more lenient as my kids are older (12-18 years) but they also have Qustuido installed and have time limits and the rule that we know their password and can check their phones at any time.

I don't feel the need to check often - as I trust my children to know what is appropriate (or not) and we always have discussions about this as a family. But - when they have appeared sad or reserved - it always comes down to something happening on their phone (usually disagreements among friends) but sometimes bullying and having the rules we do, means I can see this and intervene.

Living in the UK, social media is one of my biggest fears. My kids are quite sheltered and what is out there on the web scares the life out of me.

I think you are doing the right is so hard to navigate, especially as they get older and especially in the UK / USA where peer pressure to have certain apps etc becomes greater.

I LOVE your bribery idea! I am going to steal that one!!

Steph T said...

We are not an apple family, so I can share what we've used for our non-apple devices. For our Windows computers, we use Microsoft family safety. Each kid has their own Microsoft account and we use the parental controls to limit their access in much of the same ways that you describe. In case I forget to check on their activity, I get a summary emailed to me each week. The Windows computers are the only computers that they have browser access, and we limit that to only Microsoft Edge. The family safety feature tracks every search and every website they visit and sends that to me in the weekly report. I have the ability to block or allow apps, set time limits, and set bedtimes. These accounts also work on the Xbox.

For Android devices and our Chromebook, I use the Google Family Link. We love the Google products too and I have been so thrilled to use Google Classroom for my homeschooled high schoolers this year. The Google Family Link app has improved greatly over the past few months and I'm thankful. When my kids are using Chrome devices they have access only to those websites that we have allowed, such as Gmail or Virtual Homeschool Group. I am always keeping my eye out for what I call "gateway" apps - apps that will allow the kids to follow a web link even though the browser is blocked. Instagram and Facebook are big offenders, and even worse I can't track their history on those. I am a Facebook user, and I've allowed my children who are too young for messaging apps to use the Messenger Kids app. They can only contact friends that I have allowed. It has been so fun to allow them to talk with friends, and grandparents that live far away.

We have made so many mistakes as parents over the years. Typically my biggest failure is just growing lazy and/or inattentive. I to love your idea of paying the kids to tell you when they uncover something worrisome. This is a great idea that I think I could work on implementing in our family.

Amy Medina said...

Thanks Amy and Steph! Really helpful for me (and anyone else reading this) to hear about other families' plans.