Keeping my kids safe from the internet: a rational plan

Are you ready for an understatement?

I have a very tech-savvy family. Inside our household of five there are three Macs (for parents only), four iPhones, five iPads, two Chromebooks, two Chromeboxes and a host of kindle fires, game consoles, and other tech stuff. I write web applications. My wife is no tech slouch. My kids are already taking an interest in coding. We are no luddites.

I want my kids to enjoy the best of the internet. I want them to be able to use the amazing learning tools the internet provides to become better musicians, artists, cooks, sewers or whatever else they are interested in at the moment. I want them to be able to look stuff up on wikipedia. I want them to be able to communicate with their grandparents and other friends who live a thousand miles away.

I’m also extremely wary of the internet. It’s not the porn and other filth that scares me (all adult content is blocked on a network level in our house), it’s the addicting nature of seemingly good things that I’m scared of.

Youtube is great. I probably watch a youtube video everyday. Youtube has helped me become a better woodworker, helped me learn to play ukulele, helped me learn new coding skills and helped me grow my software consulting business.

Youtube is also like crack cocaine, especially for kids. My five year old would watch youtube from dawn till bedtime, every day if we let him. My eight and nine year olds daughters wouldn’t be far off. Further, they aren’t watching the good parts of youtube, they are watching toy-unboxing videos or family vlogs and other annoying low-quality content.

My kids cannot handle unfettered access to youtube or social media. This isn’t just because they lack the will and wisdom to make good time management decisions, it’s also because youtube (and facebook and instagram) do everything in their power to make themselves addicting. There are powerful algorithms at play crunching ever increasing amounts of data, using every psychological trick in the book to keep you checking these devices all the time so they can sell more and more ads.

… and God only knows what we are doing to kids brains.

Sean Parker, former president of Facebook

In more than one book I’ve read recently, I’ve seen anecdotes from university mental health departments showing a staggering rise in anxiety and other mental health issues unlike anything these people have ever seen before. It directly corresponds to when teenagers started having unfettered access to social media.

So how do we give our kids access to what’s good on the internet without allowing them to become addicted little androids who are wasting their time away staring at little screens?

I have a plan:

1. Social Media is forbidden.

For the reasons stated above, my children will not have accounts on facebook, twitter, instagram, etc.. In fact, all of these services will be blocked from any device they have access to.

The only person in my house who will use social media is my wife, if there are any family updates that my kids may miss, she will do her best to show them to them.

I’m 35, and I can’t handle social media. I’ve been off facebook for nearly a year and I still get the urge to check it nearly every day. It’s powerful stuff. Facebook, like morphine, has it’s legitimate uses, but I’m not letting my kids anywhere near it.

2. Streaming media is limited to their iPads and they can only access them one hour per day.

My kids have iPads, but they are only allowed to access those iPads for a total of one hour a day, and only after schoolwork and chores are done. During that time, they can watch age appropriate Youtube or Netflix videos, play games, and do the other things kids do on iPads. But this is a special treat, not an all-day reality.

3. Chrome devices are always available for educational use

To google’s credit, they’ve recently added Family link to Chromebooks and Chromeboxes, which allows us to give each of our kids a restricted gmail account and then limit what they can do with it on chrome and android devices. We have these accounts fairly well locked down, so that they can’t do any social media or streaming media, but they can still access the devices for learning.

So if my kids want to play with Scratch (a kids coding app put out by MIT) or read a tutorial on how to knit or look up the capital of Venezuela or find the chords to baby shark so they can play it on ukulele – there are plenty of devices they can access for that.

Eventually, I plan on setting aside a little money to be used for paid online courses on sites like udemy.com. This way I can buy video courses on things my children are interested in without exposing them to everything on Youtube and social media.

Time will tell

We are still pretty new to this experiment and I’m sure there will be adjustments along the way – but I think it’s a rational approach to keeping my kids safe from the addicting parts of the internet while at the same time allowing them to be connected to the good parts. We are still pretty new at this.

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