There’s a song from the late 1990s by grunge rock band The Offspring and the title has now become famous. In fact, today it’s become something of a tagline to broadly signal a warning about the struggles of youth.
The kids are not alright.
There may be a tendency to look behind with wringing hands and worry about “the next generation.” Of course, things were better when we were kids...weren’t they?
While some “when-I-was-your-age-ing” is inevitable, wondering whether the kids of today will be alright is more warranted than ever. Why is that? Because kids today are more exposed, more vulnerable, and more targeted than ever before.
Technology has advanced at a stunning pace in the last 20 years and the simple reality is that we’re just starting to understand what the devices we carry and the apps we scroll are doing to us...and especially our kids. It’s a portal, both wonderful and dangerous, to a very wide world. More than ever, protecting kids requires parents, guardians, and teachers to be aware, equipped, and intentional about how to safely navigate the digital world.
The Alarm is Sounding
In recent years, there’s been a growing outcry from parents and advocacy groups raising the alarm. Screen time, cyberbullying, social media addiction, online predators - these are just a handful of the items that are raising concern. While some of the impacts may be obvious, experts and researchers are just starting to uncover others - like the impacts on kids mental health, self esteem, physical development.
For those who feel concerned, one of the best steps is to build the knowledge needed, that then prepares parents or guardians for the right conversations and the right safety measures. As they say, knowledge is power!
“It begins by building a positive dialogue with your children about their online experiences.” says internet security expert Michael Kaiser via Safety.com.
The Eye-Opening Statistics Parents, Guardians, and Teachers Should Know
1) 53% of kids in the US today have a smartphone by the age of 11 (Common Sense Media)
Smartphones may be one of the most incredible inventions of the past 100 years. These devices that didn’t exist 20 years ago are now everywhere and they’re our portal to the world. The problem is, they’re also a portal to danger.
It’s both the addictive nature of the technology itself, as well as the exploitative, inappropriate content that it offers. We wait until kids are 16 to drive, 21 to drink, and (for goodness sakes!) we make someone wait until 25 to rent a car! And yet, as a society we are handing kids cell phones at younger and younger ages, often without the training and maturity required. It’s time to start thinking about internet safety like driver's ed, providing kids a cyber seatbelt to navigate the road ahead.
2) Kids between the ages of 5-8 spend over 3 hrs per day on a screen (Common Sense Media) and 82% of parents say they are concerned about their kids’ screen time (Parents Together Action)
It’s no surprise that COVID pushed more kids to spend more time in front of screens. As learning turned to home, screens became the central portals for learning and interaction. The challenge is that more research is emerging about the complexity and potential dangers of life lived on a screen.
While some will advocate for firm limits or blackouts, the reality is that screens are a part of life today! That doesn’t make screens evil - but it does mean there’s a need for parents to work toward building healthy screen time habits and to be intentional about the when, where, how, and what of screen time.
3) 90% of children 8-16 have seen online pornography (CyberPsychology)
This statistic is somewhere between shocking and not shocking at all. The prevalence of porn is well known, and many kids first encounter it by accident. Today, most kids encounter this and other kinds of dangerous content well before their brain development and maturity are equipped to navigate it. Given the prevalence of inappropriate content across the web, more and more parents are working hard to delay giving their kids cell phones - where most first find this material - for as long as possible.
4) 65% of 8-14 year olds have been involved in some kind of cyberbullying incident (GuardChild)
The concept of cyberbullying is relatively new, as kids continue to access social media at younger and younger ages. As damaging and concerning as this is, it shouldn’t surprise us - anywhere that social interaction, meets youth, meets anonymity, the likelihood of bullying grows exponentially. It becomes even more dangerous when kids experience their digital worlds as more immersive and real than their actual social lives.
Finding incentives to help kids stay active, engage in the real world, and delay social media immersion for as long as possible are all great strategies, when paired with good communication and open dialogue about what kids are encountering online. With this approach, parents and guardians can help kids build balance and fight the growing trend of cyberbullying.
5) Reports of child online exploitation have risen dramatically since the start of the coronavirus pandemic (WSJ)
It’s scary for parents to know that more time online means more exploitation. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the nonprofit saw 4.1 million reports of child online exploitation in April of last year as education moved online, up by over 3 million the same time the previous year.
In many cases, the biggest issue is simply that kids are accessing the internet at younger and younger ages. The older kids get (with the help of parents, guardians and teachers) they can develop the skills, judgment, and critical thinking to navigate difficult situations online. But at any age, it’s important for parents to know how real the threats really are.
What can Parents Do?
1) Be engaged in your kids’ online life
One of the most powerful things a parent or guardian can do is to be interested and involved in their child’s activity. It’s more than just monitoring or rule-setting. It’s about lasting connection and mentoring.
2) Use the “cyber safety belt” approach
The good news is that there are more tools than ever available to parents! Parental controls are a great starting point to help limit dangerous online content. But don’t be too confident since these can be famously faulty and prone to work-arounds.
Starting early is one of the most powerful things a parent can do to help kids develop good technology habits. A kids smart watch is a great way to delay getting kids a cell phone while staying connected and help them learn about technology in secure steps. Many leading models even include a GPS tracker for kids to help parents always be in the know.
3) Make a plan
Here’s one thing we know: if you don’t make a plan, your kids will. Be clear with expectation. Establish that screens, internet use, and social media are a responsibility and that devices like cell phones are a privilege that’s won with age and maturity, not an automatic delivery. As you introduce technology in your home, consider helpful guides (like these from our friends at START), building shared contracts with your kids, and invite them into the plan with you.
4) Find support along the way
There’s plenty of reason for concern today, but the good news is that no parent or guardian is alone in this fight! Look for great resources like these to walk the journey with you - allies, advocacy groups, authors, and thoughtful family-first companies, and more!