Maryann Tobin’s daughter is only 2 years old, but she is already using an iPad Mini, watching kid shows her mom has preselected.
“She knows how to scroll the screen to get the show she wants,” said Tobin, who only loads the device with appropriate games and programs, no Internet access. But she knows full well her daughter’s playful iPad use is just the beginning of a technological journey that will become increasingly challenging.
“By the time my 2-year-old gets to high school, paper could be dead,” said Tobin, a professor of reading education at Nova Southeastern University, who also teaches teachers how to keep pace with new technology. “If kids are going to be successful, they’ll need to know how to navigate that cyber world.”
The same goes for the parents and teachers who need to keep up with them.
“There’s no future where our children will not be utilizing technology,” said Aimee Wood, a prevention specialist with Broward County Schools and a mother of four. “Our kids are much more tech savvy than we are. Some (parents) are intimidated and choose to ignore it, which is a big mistake.”
It’s no surprise that computers, smartphones, notebooks and myriad other devices are an intrinsic part of a kid’s life, at all ages, in and out of school. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that kids already spend an average of seven hours a day in front of a TV or computer screen. The group advises limits of two hours a day.
With kids increasingly using computers for school and socializing, setting limits isn’t easy for cyber-wary parents, who also face high-tech concerns like inappropriate texting, cyberbullying, predators and social media. Add to that ethical issues, like how much snooping is prudent and how much goes too far. Is it wrong to install more intrusive software and tracking devices or secretly steal passwords? No wonder parents are in a digital dilemma.
Some of these ethical questions aren’t new. “It’s like the issue of ‘Do you read your kids’ diary?’ ” said Deborah Karcher, chief information officer for Miami-Dade Schools. But she and other parents and teachers agree the potential for cyber dangers escalates concerns.
“Every parent has a different level of comfort in terms of how much freedom they want to allow for their children” and how much they fear for their safety, said Wood.
“You want them to gain their independence, but at the same time it’s the web, and it’s all out there,” said Sarah Messiah, a mother of three and a research associate professor in the department of pediatrics at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “Every way you try to restrict them, there’s five ways around it. My approach is to educate them about how to watch for predators and creepy people and sense when something’s not right in their own social circle.”
Age is a big factor in determining the level of parent involvement and use of tracking or filtering software.
Wood urges “laying the groundwork early,” to make sure kids know the house rules for computer use. Wood started monitoring her children when they were young. But she “never felt the need to set up tracking.” She required her kids to include her as a friend so she could see their posts and what people were posting on their sites.
“If they don’t do that, they don’t get the device,” said Wood. “The agreement is I won’t interfere unless there’s a safety issue.”
Educators and experts in cyber world security caution that parents do need to stay on top of kids’ online activities.
“Having an 8 year old and a 13 year old, I know from experience that kids have to be closely monitored and watched,” said Edward McAuliff, chief information security officer for Miami-Dade schools. “No one size fits all. Parents have to educate themselves and educate their kids on the good and bad of technology. And you need to understand what your kids are doing and who they’re doing it with.”
That means doing your homework. You might not realize that a game puts your kid in touch with others on the Internet, potentially including strangers.
“The best way to find out what’s going on is to ask your kids to teach you about it,” McAuliff said. “Ask them, how do you use Instagram, how do you use Snapchat? They want their parents to be cool.”
McAuliff suggests having kids work on their computers in a public area, not a locked bedroom. “We try to have the kids use technology where we’re present.”
There are lots of reasons for parental vigilance — and one is identity theft, said McAuliff. Young kids are prime targets and often fall for requests for their personal information.
“If someone obtains a kid’s Social Security number and opens a credit card, no one will know because an 8-year-old is not going to apply for credit for 10 years,” he said.
In July 2014, a former food service worker at Miami’s Horace Mann Middle School was sentenced to 81 months in prison for selling students’ personal information. According to court documents, Pamela Rhim-Grant was paid $10 per student’s personal identifying information in either cash or gift cards. Rhim-Grant and two others were accused of stealing about 400 student identities from Coral Reef, Palmetto, Killian and other Miami-Dade high schools for filing more than 200 fraudulent tax returns.
The school district’s police and technology departments were directed to devise ways to safeguard Social Security numbers and other sensitive student records.
“It’s a very big industry,” said Karcher. Schools are also trying to raise awareness for students and employees “to secure what’s on your computer. Don’t leave your computer open or unattended. Don’t give out information.”
Teachers monitor what kids are doing on school computers in the classroom. It gets trickier when it comes to students’ personal cellphones or tablets. Students who bring their own technology have to abide by certain guidelines. Broward’s policy on personal devices states that officials or teachers have the right to inspect, “at any time, any personally owned device.” Miami-Dade’s policy requires permission forms be filled out at the beginning of each school year on its list of requirements.
Given concerns about predators, parents should talk honestly with their kids about “friending” people they don’t know. A Hialeah man was recently convicted of child pornography, creating fraudulent accounts using assumed identities of teenage girls. He used these identities to engage in conversations with teenage boys on various chat sites, including Kik, Skype and Omegle, and cajoled them into sending sexually explicit sites which he sold as child pornography.
The earlier you start educating kids, the better. “It all starts with good communication,” said Tobin. Even if your child is 2 years old.
Tips to navigate the digital world
Some tips for kids from parents, educators and the National Children’s Advocacy Center:
▪ Don’t share photos that reveal personal information like a T-shirt with the name of your school or team. Never post any personal background.
▪ Don’t meet anyone you first “met” on the Internet. If someone asks to meet you, tell your parents or guardian right away.
▪ Don’t download or install software or anything on your computer or cellphone before checking with your parents or guardian.
▪ Never respond to mean or rude texts, messages and emails. Delete any unwanted messages.
▪ Never share your password with anyone, including your best friend. The only people who should know your password are your parents or guardian.