When schools closed in the spring of 2020, parents and teachers both knew screen time was going to increase. Not only would students spend more time on the web for virtual learning, but kids would use social media and gaming apps for entertainment while they were away from their peers. In the months since, experts have started to get an idea for just how much screen time kids have.
According to a survey by the advocacy group ParentsTogether, kids are spending significantly more time in front of screens because of the pandemic. The average child now spends six hours each day online, a 50% increase since before the coronavirus shut down schools and parents canceled birthday parties and playdates.
The rise in screen time likely continued throughout the summer as camps were canceled and pool hours were limited. Leaving the house wasn’t as simple as grabbing a towel and some sunscreen. Looking into fall, social distancing guidelines are likely to continue, even if Florida students return to the physical classroom.
An increase in screen time means an increase in opportunities for risky behavior. Kids are more likely to encounter adult content that they don’t understand or aren’t ready to see. They also make themselves more available to online predators and cyberbullies.
As a parent, you can protect your kids without hovering over them the entire time they are on the web. Use this guide to get the tools you need.
Be Aware of Common Internet Dangers
As a parent, it’s up to you to teach your kids about the dangers on the web. What they say, who they talk to, and what content they engage with can shape their friendships today and their futures tomorrow. Here are five common dangers that kids encounter online.
- Cyberbullying: this is the act of intimidation, manipulation, or blackmail in an online format. It can be done by internet strangers or close friends of your child. The vast majority (90%) of teens believe cyberbullying is a problem, while 63% believe it is a serious problem.
- Online Predators: internet predators still lurk across the web, especially in portals like social media where they can hide their identities and seem innocent. These predators might use video calls to ask kids to send photos of themselves or even try to meet your child in real life.
- Phishing scams: online predators aren’t just going after your children, they are trying to get at their personal information – and yours. Phishing scams seem authentic and encourage victims to put in their personal information like their passwords and home address. Scammers of younger kids might ask about pets names or home towns, knowing that these are common answers to security questions their parents might use.
- Adult content: sexual content, violence, and other information lives on the web and can be fairly easy to access. Parents who don’t know what their kids look at throughout the day may be shocked at what they are able to find.
- Social media posts: the content that your child posts today can haunt them in the future. According to a survey by CareerBuilder, 70% of employers use social media to screen candidates and 54% have eliminated candidates because of their social media content. The content on the internet lives forever. The posts your teen shares now could be what future employers find in a few years.
There are other threats to your child and family beyond this list (like scams that encourage kids to download malware), but this should give you an idea of how important it is for you to know what your child looks at online and why you should teach them to be responsible web users.
Set Rules for Screen Time That Work for You
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to how parents can approach online internet usage. It all depends on the age of your child, their interests, and your schedule. While you may need to monitor a younger child’s screen time carefully, you may not have the time to sit with them through every app they use.
Many child development experts are also empathetic to the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, most families are just trying to make it through the year. If this means you’re bored kids spend more time watching videos or chatting with friends, then that is okay.
“It’s all about the big picture,” Cori Cross, a Los Angeles-based general pediatrician, says. “There may be days when you are exhausted, you don’t feel great and you can’t be ‘on’. As parents, we need to listen to ourselves. When we have that extra energy and we can do extra stuff, we can do that too.”
In fact, there are times when added screen time is healthy. Kids can dance to videos and enjoy other forms of physical activity when they can’t go outside. They can also feel like they are hanging out with friends through a video call on the TV or on your laptop.
“During extraordinary times with a high degree of uncertainty and irregularity, it is vital for children to play and communicate with friends,” Daniel Kardefelt Winther and Jasmina Byrne write for Unicef. “Video games and social media can offer meaningful experiences during a pandemic: connectedness in a time where social interaction is reduced; entertainment when options are limited; and a tool to help take the edge off of anxiety and fear.”
If you have never set guidelines for screen time in your household, now may be the time to develop some internet best practices. You can evaluate these in a few months, or even once per year, as your child gets older and uses the web in different ways.
Use These Internet Safety Resources
There are several resources on the web that you can turn to if you want to protect your children – or at least start a discussion around internet safety.
Google has multiple tools that parents can use to teach their kids about internet risks while empowering parents to implement safety controls. The Google Safety Center offers parental controls and lets adults set ground rules for kids.
The search giant also has a game and school curriculum for kids called Be Internet Awesome. Internet best practices, like spotting false information or securing passwords, are presented in a fun and engaging way, making kids more likely to pay attention.
For students who are learning at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, more time on the computer means more opportunities to see unsavory content. The team at Safewise regularly updates its resources with tips and information for kids. Check out their online learning section with tips for safely attending video calls with teachers, friends, and family members.
SafeKids has a pledge for children under 10 and for teens that families can agree to. You can add rules to these pledges or remote them depending on your child’s needs. This is a good base to start if you have never talked about internet safety as a family before.
If you want to increase your web monitoring to make sure your kids are safe, Net Nanny is a parental control app that allows you to limit what your child can and cannot see on the web. This can be a useful tool if you have a younger child who needs a phone in order to reach you but shouldn’t be allowed to surf the web alone just yet. With this app, you can block certain websites, monitor screen time, and limit what apps your child uses.
There are many dangers on the web, but that doesn’t mean the internet isn’t a useful and positive place for kids to play and learn. Social media helps kids and teens form strong personal relationships, while the Internet makes schoolwork much more engaging and interesting. Your child’s screen time can significantly benefit them socially, emotionally, and academically – especially during this pandemic. However, your child still needs a strong foundation in digital literacy and internet safety to make sure they surf smartly.