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Five Tips for Parents of Digital Natives

“Hi Daddy, it’s me.”

My daughter had been saving all summer for a new iPod Touch. Those four words were her way of letting me know she’d gotten it.

Just four words, but I could see her standing in the Apple store, smiling ear to ear with excitement. When she got home, she spent the evening updating her contacts, syncing music, and installing apps recommended by her older sister.

I know a good bit about the world that’s opened up to her now, so I am both excited with her and sober for her.

In a very real way, you’re smart to view Internet access the way you’d view a ticket to the world. There’s so much good and glorious stuff to see, hear, explore, and enjoy, and there’s also plenty of hateful, obscene, evil stuff that can hurt you. As a parent, you’d only drop your kid off by herself in Beijing after going there with her first, teaching her how to navigate the city, helping her learn the language, cluing her into what’s worth seeing there, giving her a clear heads up about the real dangers, and equipping her what to do and who to call when she runs into trouble.

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The same is needed as your kids begin to explore the digital world.

With this in mind, here are five tips for parents:

  1. Don’t prepare your kids for “if,” prepare them for “when.”
    Notice in that last paragraph I wrote, “when she runs into trouble,” not “if.” Helping your kids to expect trouble will come isn’t pessimistic or fearful. It’s just reality. Unless you want them to live in a cocoon, they’re going to experience evil—from without and within. This is part of life in a fallen world, and it’s part of the digital world, too.
  2. Teach your kids what to do when they run into trouble online.
    As parents, we can get so focused on trying to protect our kids online that we forget to help them know what to do when they encounter online pornography, violence, hate, friend-requests from strangers, bullying, etc. As a parent, get clear about what a good response from your kid looks like, and then train your kids accordingly.
  3. Train your kids to talk to you immediately.
    This is a practical expression of #2. One of the best responses you can hope for when your kids see something pornographic, for example, is for them to tell you. So train them accordingly. From the first time our younger kids do anything online, we run fire drills with them, that when something pornographic shows up on the screen, they 1) say “That’s pornography!” out loud, 2) physically shut the laptop, flip over their tablet or phone, or turn off their desktop monitor, and 3) come tell us as quickly as possible. (Thanks to Good Pictures, Bad Pictures for this insight.)
  4. Make it easy for your kids to talk to you.
    Let your kids know you want them to come to you so you can help them, not so you can punish them. And (don’t miss this!) make sure when your kids do come, you respond accordingly. Don’t aim your alarm at what they’ve seen at them. A kid who’s just seen pornography, for example, needs his parents’ compassion and help, not their shock and disgust. Believe it or not, this is a fork in the road for your relationship: One path invites your kid to secrecy and shame, the other invites him to openness with you. Secrecy and shame fuel addiction, the light brings healing. So even if your son or daughter intentionally went looking for sexual content, praise him for telling you, be impressed with her courage, celebrate this huge victory. From there, you can begin exploring what’s happened and what’s needed from here. (Check out Regeneration’s PG conference for more.)
  5. Show your kids what’s awesome.
    The best way to help your kids not to go underground with their digital lives is to show them what’s awesome both online and off. The Internet may not have been a part of your childhood, but it is most definitely a part of your kids’. Instead of vilifying the digital world as a whole, be a part of helping your kids learn to discover and discern what’s awesome, and what’s not. To me, awesome stuff is relational, beautiful, hilarious, moving, meaningful, self-sacrificing, generous, brave, and mysterious. I want to invite my kids into a life brimming with these things. And I want to live a life like that with them. So when it comes to their digital devices, I’m looking for ways to use technology to connect with them, to love them well, and to know them better. So I’m playing their games, replying to a hundred text messages a day, or stopping what I’m doing to shoot out a “Wassup?” just for the heck of it. I don’t just want them telling me when something bad crosses their paths, I want to know what’s making them laugh, what’s taking their breath away, what’s got them thinking…

I know these five things can’t ensure my daughter won’t get into bad habits online, and they can’t guarantee that for your kids either. But at the end of the day, it can help.

Because between her mom and me, we may be the only ones online wanting her to become more the incredible young woman God created her to become. So in the years ahead, she can say more and more, “Daddy, it’s me.”

Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts about any of these five, or add your own!

With you,
Josh

4 thoughts on “Five Tips for Parents of Digital Natives”

    1. Great question, Rudy! Glad you asked. No, my kids don’t have free range access to the Internet. So far, we’ve given our kids progressively more freedom online based on their age, how they’re demonstrating responsibility online, and what their need is. We start training them as soon as they can get on a device. For our oldest kids, so far, we’ve required that internet accessible devices be kept in a public place in our home (not allowed in bedrooms at night). Our primary parental control strategy is ongoing, regular, and open two-way conversations (our kids’ openness and participation in talking with us is a demonstration of their level of responsibility), but honestly, your question is a good reminder to me that we want to install a technology-based filter and accountability to help keep out pornographic content as well. Thanks!

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