For those of us with tweens and teens, online safety is at the forefront of our daily parenting concerns. But what about parents with younger children? How important is online safety to those who are shepherding the tender hearts of preschoolers? We actually feel that a strong parenting strategy for keeping your kids safe online is best started before they even go off to kindergarten! During the critical years of discipline and boundaries (2 – 5 years old), laying a foundation for good digital habits is essential.
I recently had the privilege of helping a group of moms who are parenting young children understand the 5 essential things you need to teach your kids about online safety before they head off to kindergarten. Not all kids go off to a traditional brick-and-mortar school five days a week for kindergarten, but for those who do, this represents a big turning point in their understanding of the world that exists beyond their home. They will encounter new friends, new challenges, and new frontiers. From in-classroom technology, to peer influences, your baby’s mind will be opened to things you may not be able to control.
Before these unknown variables come into play, the preschool years should be spent building a strong foundation in your child’s understanding about boundaries concerning technology and screen time. Remember, boundaries are a set of external limitations that, with consistency over time, eventually become internalized by your child as wisdom. If you want a tween who doesn’t argue about your family’s online safety parameters, start in preschool. For moms and dads, these years are critical!
BEFORE KINDERGARTEN, YOUR CHILD SHOULD KNOW:
1. As a parent, you are way smarter than them.
One of the most beautiful things about young kids is they think their parents know everything! You are the keeper of all knowledge, as far as they are concerned, and that is to your benefit when it comes to your child’s early views of technology. Reinforce this principal by using access-limiting features on all of your electronics. Use pin codes and passwords for tablets, computers, cable, netflix…anything that offers some sort of parental control. Set time limits and use features like Guided Access to keep their screen time limited and focused. Why? You are reminding your children that YOU are the gatekeepers of technology in their life. Privileges are bestowed only by express parental permission, and mom or dad are the only ones who know the secret passcode to make the device work.
Children learn very rapidly when they are small, and any device you give them free reign on, they will quickly master. The more practice you allow them to navigate their own universe online, the steeper the learning curve you create for yourself. You can’t reverse the societal trend of ever-increasing technology, but you CAN SLOW it’s effects on your little ones. And that comes by limiting the amount of technology they have access to in the early years, as well as the amount of time you allow them to use it. The best way to stay out in the lead regarding technological expertise is to keep your kids on a much slower pace than they will desire. After all, you have a solid decade ahead of the asking, whining, and “everyone else has one” arguments… this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Pacing is key.
2. Everything belongs to mom and dad.
To prevent entitlement, reinforce the principle from the earliest of ages that every device is under your jurisdiction. Your child is merely having a turn or borrowing the device for a designated amount of time. I remember having the revelation a few years back that my children thought my iPhone was their phone too. I then removed all of the games on it, and started saying, “This is my phone, not yours.” Eventually, they stopped asking to play games every time they had 5 minutes of boredom. I also have a fingerprint lock on my phone, sending the message loud and clear.
A new iPad from the grandparents can be referred to as “the family iPad.” Old phones mom and dad don’t use anymore can be referred to as the “extra phones” instead of actual hand-me-downs the kids see as their own. It’s all in the way you communicate. Set the precedent early that ownership is something that happens much, much later in their lives.
3. They can earn their own way.
Screen time is a privilege, not a right. Privileges can be earned and they can also be taken away. Even 2-year-olds can be taught to pick up their toys to earn a turn doing something fun. I’ve been training my boys for a couple of years NOT to ask for screen time, but instead, to ask if there is anything I need help with first. I am trying to instill in them the principle of sowing and reaping. Don’t ask to be blessed before you have asked how you can be a blessing. This training has served us—and them—well. They have accepted our desire to help them prioritize their time activities, even though they may not always like it. They also know that screen time will never happen before homework and chores are complete.
4. Some things are not safe.
Supervising your children when they are using technology sends a strong message: At this age, the Internet is only safe when an adult is with you. Much like teaching them how to swim, we start off with an intense amount of supervision. If they’re in the kiddie pool, maybe we aren’t holding them the whole time, but we never take our eyes off them. It can be years before they venture into deep water unaccompanied by an adult, and even still, it’s wise to have a lifeguard present. Here are some of the foundational principles of online safety for young children:
You’re only as safe as where you start. Young children should not be “googling” anything. As parents, you should always have Google Safe Search locked for every browser, but a more preferable solution is using kid-safe search engines, even when you are right beside them. By making a kid-safe search engine (like KidRex.org or kiddle.co) your home page, you are establishing a precedent for your child. Teach them that these are the sites mom and dad approve of for searching for information online.
YouTube is not safe for children, period. YouTube is listed as a 17+ app, and their official statement is that the platform is not intended for anyone under 13. Yes, they have “Restricted Mode,” but that feature can be toggled on and off very easily on any mobile version (the app), which is a big problem (plus, it’s definitely NOT guaranteed to keep out all of the junk). As a platform, YouTube contains seriously offensive (and even illegal) material, including pornography, self-harm, graphic violence, hate speech, and the like. YouTube for Kids is certainly preferred for young children, you can also find videos on this platform with sexual content, suicidal messages, and more. YouTube Kids does offer parental controls that will give you the option of hand selecting the approved channels your kids can watch, and every parent of preschoolers should do this. Also, as a general rule, help your kids learn to be cautious when someone wants to show them any video online. Teach them that not all videos have safe pictures.
We don’t interact with strangers online. Not on Animal Jam “chat”, not on Minecraft. Nothing. This should be non-negotiable for years and years and years. When you eventually cross that line, your child will need to be ready to navigate very rough seas… with mom and dad to help.
All kids deserve to be warned about pornography, taught how to reject it, and given an action plan to get help if they are exposed. We recommend every parent of young children purchase this incredible new book: Good Pictures, Bad Pictures JUNIOR. Much like it’s predecessor, Good Pictures, Bad Pictures (for 7-12 year olds), this JUNIOR version puts a very difficult topic into age-appropriate language and creates dialogue for parents and children. Pornography is one of the most sinister, damaging, and pervasive threats online, and kids are finding it younger and younger. Before putting your child in any daycare or school setting, have this talk.
5. They can do without.
Help kids create boundaries and balance around technology use by purposely instituting “unplugged” days or weeks. Media time does not have to be an everyday occurrence, but it can often become an all-too-frequent fallback for distracting kids so mom and dad can have a break or get something done. We’ve all been there! Unfortunately, the overuse of media and technology can actually take our kids in the direction opposite of where we want them to go developmentally. Overstimulation can lead to ADHD and other attention difficulties. Boredom is actually helpful because it gives way to creativity and problem solving, if we will just stand our ground and allow them to be bored. How many times a week can you stay unplugged as a family? Invite your kids into that process and talk through pre-planned times where you can shut everything off and just enjoy each other or some quiet time. This intentionality is essential for raising kids who are content and balanced.
The ultimate goal of online safety is to train your kids to understand how to make wise choices online. And that kind of goal is not attained in a conference, an after-school special, or a safety pep-talk on Facebook Live. It’s a foundation that is laid brick by brick, year after year, gentle instruction after gentle instruction. It’s built every time you consistently set boundaries for tech use, and every time you block out the bad stuff with your super-parent know-how (parental controls and passwords).