As a nerdy aunt, there are times where I’m pretty sure I’m more excited to give my niece and nephew gifts than they are to receive them. This Christmas, for example, I’m eager to give them a favorite graphic novel and matching card game, but I guarantee it will mean more to me when they unwrap it than it will to them.
Although I’m not a parent, I’m pretty sure a lot of nerd parents feel the same way about the gifts they plan to give their kids. We know what we love and what shaped us as adults; we want the kids in our lives to love and be shaped by the same things.
But the problem is, we may actually be handing our kids gateway toys to unhealthy problems later in life, like porn habits, technology addictions, cyberbullying, or even just picking up bad habits from the gross trolls in the comments on YouTube.
These are real problems. During the 10 years I’ve worked at Covenant Eyes, an anti-porn software company, I’ve heard many horror stories. Kids showing each other porn on the school playground. Porn linked in a Minecraft tutorial. Watching it through their unmonitored PS5. I’ve even heard of people accessing porn through Bible apps (and I’m not just talking about the Song of Solomon).
I tell you these things not to depress or scare you. WIFI-enabled devices are wonderful blessings! But I also know that if parents aren’t intentional about preparing their kids to use technology wisely, it’s all too easy for a kid to stumble across content and interactions they are not prepared to process, and then deal with psychological and relational troubles later in life as a result.
The good news is, if you bought your kids a tablet, you have NOT automatically doomed them to a lifetime of addiction. In the rest of this article we’ll look at three ways to keep technology fun and safe.
1. Protect Your Tech
If you’re buying your kids anything that connects to WIFI for Christmas, your first step is to read up on parental control settings on those devices (A friend at Protect Young Eyes has pulled together a great resource for this).
- Can you set up age-based content restrictions and parental controls within the device itself? (Protect Young Eyes goes into great depth.)
- If not, is monitoring and filtering software available for it? (Protect Young Eyes has a list of great parental control software, but a filtering service like Circle for younger kids or a monitoring service like Covenant Eyes for teens and adults are great places to start.)
- Does the device allow you to hide what you were doing easily (such as incognito browsers)?
- Does it allow unmonitored and especially anonymous conversations? (This is an important consideration when it comes to preventing cyberbullying and sexual predators).
- For apps, what comes up when you use search? (Instagram is popular, and also notorious for porn.)
- For gaming systems, how do you intend to make sure your kids play age-appropriate games? (Common Sense Media offers helpful, detailed game reviews. You can also watch gameplay streams on Twitch or YouTube to determine whether a particular game is appropriate for your child.)
This isn’t about buying your kids a brand new tablet and then only allowing them to use three preapproved apps. You’re buying your kids a gadget, not an expensive brick. The point of the “protect” step is to build a fence at the edge of the digital cliff. Basic steps like filtering will at least make it harder to dive headfirst into the darker parts of technology.
2. Prepare Your Progeny
A few years ago, the Barna group conducted research on pornography. As part of that, we compared a subset of Covenant Eyes users with the general population. One thing became clear: Parents who took the formation of their kids seriously were successful in passing on their values.
What does that mean? It means you need to talk to your kids. Tell them what you’re worried about and why you’re putting any sort of digital leash on them. Warn them about what my friend at Protect Young Eyes calls “tricky pictures and tricky people.” Tell them how you want them to respond when they run into those situations (and they will). Most likely, that response will involve shutting the browser window and telling you about it. If your kids are older and you’re only just starting the conversation, give them a week or two to confess any struggles without being punished. Make it clear that you want to help them, not keep them from having fun.
And tell them about porn early. One common objection I hear from parents is that they don’t want to be the ones introducing their kids to porn. In reality, you’d rather be the ones controlling the conversation. After all, wouldn’t you rather they learn the facts about porn from you instead of from the kid on the playground or from Google?
Open conversations really work. A colleague told me his teenage son was once hanging out with a bunch of friends who were talking about their favorite types of porn. “What’s yours?” they asked him. “I don’t watch porn,” he said. And he promptly led them into a conversation about how porn feeds into the sexual exploitation of women, among other things. Did it help that his dad works at Covenant Eyes? Undoubtedly yes; but “We’re careful about what we watch because God has better plans for us” is a conversation any parent can have.
The last point in protecting your kids is to simply play with them. Enjoy geeking out over technology together! Hunt down and share fun Minecraft videos with them. Play games together. If you bought the tablet to help them with their homework, help them on Google. Some of my own fondest memories involve playing Myst and Riven on the computer with my Dad. They’re both technically single-player games, but we solved puzzles together and took turns controlling the mouse.
In other words, don’t let screen use become a secret, private thing; that’s a breeding ground for all sorts of risky behaviors. Instead, turn technology into something you do together.
So on Christmas morning, remember those three ideas: Protect, Prepare, and Play. Put them all together and you’ll keep technology safe and fun, just as it should be.