When Kids Go Online

Cyber Peace


Patricia Wallace, the author of The Psychology of The Internet

John Suler, the author of The Psychology of the Digital Age

Kent Norman, the author of Cyberpsychology

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, the author of Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side


The rise of the digital age has posed many new challenges to parents as their children grow up online. What approach can parents take to help protect children from the net’s addictive properties?

Patricia Wallace: The net does indeed feature some virtual environments that have addictive properties, the kind that can lead young people into very troubling behavior in which their grades plummet and their relationships with family and friends sour. Online gaming is one, and although digital games offer many positive benefits, they can also trap players into compulsive overuse. Developers design the games to be very “sticky” so players return again and again, and play endlessly to reach that next level. Other virtual environments are also implicated, such as the social networks, synchronous chat worlds, and even online auctions.

Parents should be aware of what apps their children are using, and should stay alert to any signs that they are starting to fall into a pattern of overuse that can rob them of sleep, damage social relations, and negatively affect academics. Some families wisely set rules, such as “no mobile phones at dinner time,” or “all electronic devices must be checked into the hall closet at bedtime.” Other useful strategies emphasize realism and self-control. An alarm clock attached to the computer can be the unbending referee that buzzes “Stop!” Several mobile apps can also help, by tracking access to the favorite site and blocking it after a set period of time.

For severe cases, treatment centers that admit patients are springing up in many countries. In China, for example, some facilities operate more like military-style boot camps and teens follow a strict regimen with no online access at all. In the U.S., treatment typically draws on cognitive behavior therapy which promotes self-control and improves coping skills. The goal is not to deny children the many benefits of the online world, but to guide them toward a better balance.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor: The rise of the digital age has posed many new challenges to parents as their children grow up online. What approach can parents take to help protect children from the net’s addictive properties?

Many abuses of the Internet can be addressed and resolved by attentive parents, parents who take pre-emptive steps to help their children, warn them against abuse, and communicate with their children. As Internet abuse might continue without a break, 24/7, the effect on children is significant. Parents should enquire about mood changes, lack of appetite, tiredness, reluctance to go to school and similar troubling symptoms that suggest their children have problems. Problems should be tackled and addressed, not ignored or pushed under a heavy carpet.

At the same time, putting all the onus of responsibility on parents might be insufficient. There were cases of suicide, of intense sex bullying, of sexual harassment, of online violence and intimidation that were not mitigated despite parents’ best efforts. Parents need help. The help should come in the form of anti-bullying education and sex education programs at school; proactive, socially-responsible conduct of ISPs to address anti-social behaviour on the Net, and tailored, well-measured activities of states and of the international community at large.

Take, for instance, the tragic story of Megan Meier. Megan’s parents were diligent in trying to protect her. They authorized Megan’s MySpace account, monitored its content, and often were in Megan’s room when she was engaged with her friends. Only the parents had the password to the account. Megan could not sign on without them. Megan had a timed access to the Internet, which she usually utilized in the presence of her mother. The vigilant parents could log into the account anytime. Megan’s mother even called the police to see whether there was a way to confirm who owned the MySpace suspicious account that led to Megan’s suicide. Yet despite this direct and observant involvement, more vigilant than the involvement of most parents, Megan’s parents were unable to prevent the tragedy.

Kent Norman: It used to be 10-20 years ago that parents could easily monitor their kid’s activities online. In my house when the kids were growing up, we had all of the computers in one room. Nothing was private. We could all see what was on each other’s screens. Today, with mobile devices such as smart phone and tablets, this is not the case. Parents today have little way of monitoring what their kids are doing, unless they are constantly following their kids around and looking over their shoulders.

Parenting, then and now, has to emphasize training, transparency, and trust. Parents need to train their children in what is right and appropriate behaviour on the Internet, what we used to call “Netiquette.” Parents and children must be open and transparent about what is going on their lives. Family sharing time showing Instagram posts, Facebook posts, and favourite YouTube videos can be helpful and fun. Finally, there must be trust that children can be responsible handling the power and the temptations of the Internet.

One of my undergraduate honour students is focusing her research on developing and assessing digital tools to encourage delayed gratification (e.g. do your homework now and feed on media later). Rather than getting sucked into hours of Facebook trolling, YouTube watching, and game addiction, self-monitoring and self-restraint are needed.   Self-assessment tools that display an Internet use dashboard of the count of texts, time on YouTube, and other social media might be as useful as exercise and health monitors.

John Suler: Education is important for both parents and children. Start early. Take advantage of books, programs, and movies that teach children about technology. Device use should be an on-going activity between parent and child. The whole family takes time to talk about their digital experiences. They use technology together, rather than always alone in their rooms. To avoid their kids becoming symbiotic with devices while failing to thrive socially and physically, parents should not rely on technology as a nanny or playmate. Kids need time to play with actual toys, and with friends and family members in the real physical world, rather than staring into their screens all day. Do not rely on just the Internet for learning, socializing, and developing the child’s imagination.

We should give careful thought to how old a child must be before we hand over their very own phone. Giving one to a ten year old is like sending a son or daughter off to wander around New York City alone. We not only expose them to potential danger, but also encourage an early addiction to the device.

Adolescents will be a challenge. They want to venture into cyberspace with just their friends, to test out experiences unknown to their parents. They might run into disappointment or trouble. The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) might tempt them into device addiction. If parents start early in educating their children about technology, in using technology with them, in modelling appropriate use, and in learning from their kids who always know something parent’s don’t, they stand a good chance of heading off these problems.

It is a mistake to leave all of this up to parents. The school system needs to step up its role. We need laws to protect children. We need safe online environments for them to experiment and learn.

Read the rest of this 6-part Roundtable Discussion:

Part One: Cyberpsychology
Part Two: Misusing the Internet
Part Three: When Kids Go Online
Part Four: The Future of Online Relationships
Part Five: The single most important issue in cyber psychology today
Part Six: The Future of the Internet

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