By David Powell

As a parent, hearing about all this new technology probably scares you for your kids. What is appropriate usage? What about privacy, exposure to    graphic content or not posting things they will regret?  The list is endless. You may even think, “We didn’t have to deal with this stuff growing up!”

First, people our age have really poor memories. The hard truth is that we actually grew up in the era of Jeffrey Dahmer and Adam Walsh’s kidnapping. Our parents wanted to x-ray our Halloween candy for razor blades or poisoned Tylenol, and a myriad of other things we have forgotten about our youth. We even joyfully sing the lyrics to “867-5309” and turn it up today when it comes on the 80s channel in the car.  We tend to forget that the song is about a young girl, Jenny, who has made some really poor moral choices and now her number is on the bathroom wall.  So, out of the gate, let’s dispense with the notion that things are “worse” today than they were when we were growing up. The truth is that there is not a single measurable statistic that says things are worse for our kids. None. Zero. There has never been a safer time to be a child in America.  So, let’s all take a deep breath and stop talking about how “bad” things are today.  

All that being said, we do need to employ some reasonable strategies to help our children negotiate this technology landscape. The one part that is harder for us than for our parents is this—no one has ever parented kids with smart phones before. We are the first ones. For so many topics, we can call our parents or older parents we respect and ask them how they handled a particular issue.  We are the first ones to parent children with these devices, and that is challenging.  

I have worked in technology for 20+ years and have a son in college and a daughter in high school. They didn’t grow up with technology as toddlers, but they both have had devices since middle school. I can identify with the uncertainty around how best to parent our children in a way that honors the Lord, allows our children to use technology appropriately, and puts up some reasonable guardrails. Here are my top seven tips for parents for their children and their use of technology.

Tools are great, lack of privacy is better.  There are a lot of software tools you can use to restrict their usage.  Things like parental controls should always be turned on.  The new software on phones will allow you to throttle and regulate usage.  Tools like Circle will limit access to questionable content.  All these things are fine, but the most effective tool is lack of privacy.  We had, and still have, a hard and fast rule- nothing connected to the internet is allowed in your bedrooms.  You have to use it in a public space in our home.  Quite frankly, if your child tries hard enough, they can find content they shouldn’t view, irrespective of what tools you are using. Making them use their devices in a public room of your home really limits what they are willing to browse.

If your child is on a social media platform, you must be on it too and be their friend.  When your child inevitably asks if they can be on Instagram, Snapchat, VSCO, or whatever other social site is in vogue at the time, if you grant them access, you must be ready to get on that service as well.  And you must use it to regularly monitor what your children are posting and interacting with on that site. Dads,  you cannot ignore your responsibility here.  I’ve been around too many dads that want to throw their hands in the air and say “I’m not learning how to use Instagram!”  However, if your boss came to you and said your job was dependent on learning how to use Instagram, you would commit to learn.  Your children are a far more important job. You are competent. Load the app and figure it out.

Your kids are watching you to see what kind of value you put on technology.  A pastor friend of mine used to say, “they will listen to what you say, but they will watch what you do.” If you worry that your daughter will focus too much on her appearance and the curated life she posts on social media, you can’t be the mom  who anguishes over what photo is just right for Instagram. You must help your kids have an important view of what’s real and what’s not. Social media is NOT real life.  In my opinion, one of the worst aspects of social media is that it creates a false impression of what real life actually looks like.  Those perfectly posed group friend shots are not real life.  That kale and quinoa salad is not real life.  That avocado toast someone posted may be what they ate today for breakfast, but they didn’t post the picture of the Strawberry Frosted Pop Tarts they grabbed from a gas station in a hurry yesterday.  If your child is measuring their life against the curated online lives of others, they are using the wrong measuring stick.  Our value and worth comes from our Creator, not from how many likes the photo we posted received online.  There is a massive amount of research that shows that the more time people spend online, the less satisfied they are with their normal life.

The device is not theirs. It is yours. I’ll be honest, this is one of my pet peeves. Parents will gripe about their kids using their device, but won’t take it away from them. Your 10-year-old did not save money, drive themselves to the Apple Store, and buy that iPad. The iPad belongs to you. Take it away from them at any time and for any reason. They have no right, as children, to use that $1000 device that you bought and are letting them use.

When age appropriate, have them sign an Acceptable Use Policy.  If you have expectations for how they should use the device, write them down and make your child sign the Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) before you let them use the device. Something to put in the AUP is that they should have no expectation of privacy on the device. They should expect, and welcome the accountability, that comes from you taking their device and reading their texts, Group Me messages, DMs in Instagram, all of it.  Check their search history.  Check their browsing history.

Maturity should answer the “when” question.  The Bible tells us that those that can be faithful with little can be trusted with more.  A lot of people ask me “when should I get my child a cell phone?”  Would you trust them to walk around with $1000 in cash?  If not, it isn’t time.  Do they reliably do their chores? Do they remember that Monday is trash day and Tuesday is recycling day?  If they aren’t doing those things in an age-appropriate way, why would you give them a thousand-dollar device connected to the entire world?  (I’m talking about letting them independently use a smartphone.)  If your child doesn’t demonstrate a lot of maturity and responsibility, which many children do not, letting them use an iPhone is not going to make them more mature and more responsible.

Technology can very quickly and efficiently distribute your bad choices.  While our friend Jenny hoped that people didn’t go into that particular bathroom to see her number on the wall, 867-5309, in modern times, Jenny’s bad choices would be quickly and efficiently delivered to all manner of people. Kids are going to make some bad choices and do some dumb things. Technology just makes it easier to efficiently deliver evidence of those dumb things via text, DM, Snap, whatever.  Let your child know that their online presence is forever.  It never goes away.  Before I interview any candidate for a job, I Google them to see what I can find. Every company does this.

I want to end on a note of encouragement. The really, really bad stuff that kids do and have done, all those statistics are in enormous decline and are at historically low levels. We don't have to worry about some of the life altering things we used to really worry about constantly. Now, overuse of technology can create some problems with engagement, attention spans, and other things, but the benefits greatly outweigh the challenges.  I used to leave the house in high school on a Friday night and my parents had no idea where I was or what I was doing until I came home.  Now, with the Life360 app, I can tell where my kids are, how fast they are driving, how long they have been somewhere, etc. There are some really good things about technology if we simply employ some reasonable guidelines and are proactive in our approach to it with our kids.