Q: [All Ages] With the shelter-in-place, my kids are online all the time. How do I balance their distance learning needs with the usual concerns of too much screen time?
Yes, it is a reality — school is out for the rest of the academic year due to COVID-19. It’s a hard pill to swallow for parents and students alike, as we are all learning how to do things differently. Distance learning will present us all with formidable challenges, but with a little guidance we can help us all make the best of new and sometimes unfamiliar environments.
Similar to the challenges and obstacles parents and children face when school is in session, doing school from home will have its own set of challenges and obstacles. One of the most impactful adjustments coming to the surface is screen-time safety.
Today, most kids have the privilege and the opportunity to continue to learn with the assistance of technological devices. Their developing minds can continue to grow, and new windows will be opened during this at-home time. As classes and coursework continue, students of all ages are required to rely on electronic devices to complete their academic tasks. They can also experience much-needed connections with grandparents, friends and other loved ones when in-person connection is not possible.
But it’s inevitable for every parent to worry about how many hours they let their children spend on screens. For most parents, screens can be a way of survival during quarantine. Instead of being concerned about how much your kids are exposed to screens, focus on how they are engaging with it and arm yourself with information to ensure your child is safe from predators online.
It may sound drastic, or even frightening to you as a parent, but this is also a reality that has always been around. In Orange County, in the last two years, the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force helped 415 human trafficking victims, and more than 25 percent of them were minors. These are our children. And with children spending more time online, the dangers are greater than ever.
In one recent online experiment done by Bark, a 37-year-old mother went undercover as an 11-year-old girl, and she quickly exposed the danger facing our kids on social media platforms they often browse like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Kik. Left unsupervised, within minutes her experiment proved that young children can be exposed to online predators, grooming, unsolicited advances or content and psychological abuse.
During the state’s shelter-in-place when kids are completing schoolwork or social time online, it is vital that parents have healthy, open preventative communication with their kids about online safety. Sound like one more thing to add to your to-do list? Here are a few simple ways to start:
- Talk. Experts emphasize how important it is to simply talk to your kids, early and often. When facing a crisis, kids need a soft place to land, so do your best to make your house a safe place, and a place where they can come to you for help and honest communication.
- Explain. Go beyond the “don’ts” and “rules” and explain what human trafficking and online predatory behavior is. A candid conversation about what to do if someone asks them to meet or video chat is worth an explanation, and go through the possibilities of where it could lead, if it is age-appropriate.
- Safety. Check all of the devices — phones, tablets, computers, laptops — for Internet safety controls. Many apps have kid-friendly options, like Facebook Messenger Kids or YouTube Kids. Laying some family ground rules is also helpful: Don’t give out personal information, never send pictures to strangers, keep passwords private within the family, don’t download anything without permission and tell an adult if you receive a mean or strange message. Emphasize this is for your child’s health and safety, because you love and care about them so much.
Let’s protect our kids with prevention education. If parents are not talking to kids about human trafficking, recruiting and exploitation, it does not mean it will stop kids from finding the answers to those questions somewhere else. The worst-case scenario is to learn about these issues when it’s too late, as a victim.
As COVID-19 brings so many issues to the surface, parents have new opportunities to be in close proximity to the good and the bad that surrounds our youth today. Now more than ever, we have a responsibility to encourage balance, mental health, physical health and guidance for our kids. Remember, you do not have to compete against today’s advanced technology for your kids to feel safe. You may still have something technology does not have yet, and that is your child’s trust in you.
Vanessa Reyna is a program director for Waymakers overseeing the Sexual Assault Victim Services and Prevention Education Program (SAVS). Waymakers’ SAVS is the Orange County Rape Crisis Center and supports all victims of sexual assault in Orange County. SAVS presents education programs on topics related to sexual violence throughout the county. Waymakers also serves as the administrator of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force. Learn more at waymakersoc.org or @SAVSWaymakersOC.