Technology & Media

EEK! YUCK! and PHEW! Talking about Technology Safety with our Kids

If you are a parent or teacher, you will surely have had this conversation. The conversation that happens when your child or student starts talking … uncomfortably at first … about something that she saw, heard, or did that was seriously inappropriate.

“WHAT?!!?!?!?” you want to scream at the top of your lungs.

But, instead.. you take a deep breath, make sure you are not scowling, and ask in your most practiced “What ev'” tone of voice… “Oh really? … That sounds weird/interesting/strange… What happened next?”

This recently happened to me when my 9-year-old daughter started describing Survivalcraft, an app she enjoys playing on her iPad. In case you are wondering, Survivalcraft has been described as a  “ramped up, scarier version of Minecraft“. Minecraft describes itself as “a game about breaking and placing blocks.” Both of these apps are amazing games where children build worlds and think in creative and imaginative ways. Like real world Legos, both games allow players to build structures with virtual blocks. In addition, players can interact with animals (cows, wolves, horses), other characters (zombies, werewolves) and even other users. This can be really cool when you want to build a world with your friends. That said, the “connected” nature of both of these games brings up both privacy issues and the risk that our kids might be exposed to the unsavory or inappropriate behavior of other gamers.

Getting back to my story…

Imagine yourself in my shoes. My daughter is describing how players can download new worlds from the Internet that have been uploaded into the game for others to enjoy. Most of this is harmless. If you create an Ice Castle and want to share it with the world, you can upload it so that other players can download it to play in and edit as they wish. Many players enjoy the interactive nature of these games because they can show off their work or enjoy the creations of others in the Minecraft or Survivalcraft community.

But this one time, my daughter had downloaded something that was… shall we say… really icky.

A world called “Mate with Me” had piqued her interest. She is an avid reader of the Warrior Cats Series (which is totally age-appropriate, by the way.) She has also read the term “mate” in many of the non-fiction kid’s magazines we subscribe to about animals (e.g. Ranger Rick, and Ask). This is all to say, she had no idea that the word “mate” might be in any way associated with anything unsavory. (She’s only in the fourth grade for Gosh-sakes!) As she describes the world she downloaded, my stomach starts doing flip-flops. She is obviously uncomfortable as well, explaining the large naked male statues someone had created there, and something about “rubbing”… I feel like I could jump out of my skin!

I explain that downloading this “yucky world” it is not her fault, and reassure her that I am not upset in any way with her. She describes how she “blew up” the world with bombs and hot lava and deleted it from her game and promises to be careful about what she downloads in the future.

(Note: It took a while for us to find it again, but my daughter found it. If you are interested in knowing more about reporting inappropriate content in SurvivalCraft, click here.)

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 3.45.42 PM
This is just PART of the picture my daughter found online while Googling “Maroon 5 song lyrics”

Then, just two days later, my husband recounts another story of how he picked up my other daughter’s iPad to quickly look up something on the web. He says he was quite surprised to find a picture of Maroon 5’s lead singer Adam Levine standing buck naked with a woman’s hand covering his “crotchal region”. (Yes. That is a word.) She had apparently been searching for song lyrics for one of her favorite tunes on Safari.

EEK! YUCK! and PHEW! … Then and Now

These two experiences made it perfectly clear to our family, that a new conversation was warranted about technology rules and safety. That said, I find myself at a loss when wading into a world I realize I know little about.

This is the “fancy new video game” I grew up with as a kid!

If you are like me you grew up before the Internet, email, and computers you didn’t have to program yourself. You didn’t text, post, lurk, like, chat or tweet. And you most definitely didn’t grow up building virtual worlds with your friends. If you are like me, you grew up playing classic video games like Pong and Space Invaders. You had to read and play with dirt when you were bored. You played with Evil Knievel and thought Fantasy Island was scary (OK, now I’m getting off the topic…)  And if, like me, you are the parent or teacher of 5 – 10 year olds, you are probably finding yourself way, way in the dark when it comes to the amazing range of apps and games available to kids nowadays.

Zombies… wha? I have no idea what my kids are talking about when they describe these games.

It is easy to see some of the apparent differences between games then and now. Ours were set in a 2-dimensional pixelated world with limited options: you can move right or left, up or down. If you are lucky, you can also jump or shoot. That’s it. Nowadays our kids have access to 3-dimensional worlds that respond to the multitude of choices they can make. Add to this list, all the differences we may not even be aware of. Not only can our kids create unique avatars which float, bounce, dip and fly in magical technicolor worlds, they can also accessorize, socialize, and create. They can upload their work for all to see and download the work of others. They can chat, and message, and even “virtually” meet up with their friends. While all this is really cool, it brings up a lot of new questions when it comes to protecting our kids virtual and very real safety.

So, What Now?

I am not one of those parents who will argue for a tech free life. I loved TV and video games as a kid. I definitely watched and played too much. Nonetheless, I still believe, that setting limits and monitoring our children’s use of technology as they explore the new world opening up before them is the best way to prepare them for digital citizenship. That said, we never grew up using technology that looked anything like what’s available to our kids. And it’s constantly evolving. My recent experience with my daughters has made me extremely aware that unless I plan to become a big gamer or social media maven myself, I probably will never fully understand the good and bad experiences that my kids might have with technology.

So what do we do? Stay involved.

Ask your kids about the games and apps they play. Heck, sometimes play with them. Older kids (5-11 year olds) need clear guidelines about what they can and can’t do. Let them make some choices. That said, my recent experience has made me extremely aware that as adults, we need to take some of the guessing out of tech responsibility.

Don’t be afraid to make decisions for your kids. We shouldn’t have to teach our kids “all they need to know about” what a pedophile is or how commercialism works. Take away access to in app purchases. Don’t give them passwords which will allow them to purchase or download games. Seven-year olds don’t need Facebook accounts and definitely shouldn’t be surfing unsupervised on YouTube. (You’d be surprised to see what you can turn up with a simple search like “Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles.”) Don’t let them keep iPads, tablets or computers in their room (unless you are tech savvy enough to block access to inappropriate content. We now make our girls check their iPads in and out, after doing homework/chores, etc.) Limit their time so they learn to read and socialize with real people. And when you do give access, let your kid or teen know that you will be checking in on their activity from time to time: checking their email messages, viewing texts, seeing what they post on social media sites, and checking who they call on their phones.

After my initial freak out, I realized I had been a bit lazy in giving our kids access to technology. I decided to go online to look for the “perfect technology contract” only to find there was none. Some technology agreements were clearly written for families with older children than mine (we are not even ready for social media, and texting and driving is just not an issue.) And some family rules felt too strict, or not strict enough. Whether we like it or not, I think it’s important to look through what others have done to create your own unique document, that fits your family’s values and lifestyle. Finally, agree as a family that this document will be a “work in progress”, accepting that as your kids get older and technology changes, it will need to get revised over time.

Check out what I came up with here:

This is our Family Technology Contract. We will add, edit, revise this document as the girls get older and technology changes.

That said, below you will find my “Best of the Web” resources to create your own tech safety rules for your family. Check it out, create your own, and let me know what you think!

Best of the Web Resources for Technology Safety

  • Best tech contract – This is a great model of an agreement that you can use to write your own family technology contract. (I cut, pasted and adapted it to create my own version which you see above.)
  • Best kid phone contract – My girls are still too young for a smart phone. (We got them a simple talk/text phone for emergencies.) If your tween or teen is ready for a smart phone, and you are looking for a smart and loving approach to teaching phone etiquette and safety, Janell Burley Hoffman shared Gregory’s iPhone Contract (the contract she wrote for her son), and it went viral.  Click here to read the Huffington post article and see a video of the real mom and teen who created it. Then read this article by Lynn Schofield Clark, Ph.D. of Psychology Today about why
  • Simple Internet Use Agreement – If you are a fan of KISS (Keep it Simple Silly!), you will like this.
  • Online safety pledge – This is a great, simple online safety agreement for kids surfing online. I don’t think my girls are old enough to browse on their own yet. Nonetheless, it would be a great teacher or parent resource.
  • Technology agreement – This is a good and simple set of rules for tween or teens who are allowed independent use of a smart phones or tablets.
  • Parent and Kid Online Safety Contracts – This is a nice take on the Technology Contract in that it highlights the responsibilities the parents and caregivers have to model appropriate technology use and help protect our kids safety.
  • List of Digital Contracts for Kids – In case you didn’t find something above, this is another great list.

Related reads: More on SurvivalCraft… Reporting Inappropriate ContentIs Siri Showing Your Kids Inappropriate Content? Setting iPhone & iPad RestrictionsGeneration “Like”

How are you dealing with Internet safety, managing screen time and tablet/smartphone use in your family? If you have little ones, what are your worries? If you are a “veteran” teen parent, what wisdom do you have to share?

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