Since the start of the pandemic, kids have spent more hours at home than they ever have before. And as schools struggle with the decision of whether or not to reopen this fall, it is very likely that many children will continue to distance learn and spend most of their days at home for the foreseeable future. In many ways, the internet has acted as a source of comfort for kids (and adults) during this time as they use it to not just complete school work, but to also connect with teachers and peers on a personal level, stream entertaining shows, or play interactive games. But what are the caveats to this increase in online activity among kids, and what can parents do to ensure that their families stay safe online and maintain reasonable media usage limits?
In our latest 3Q series, NCTA family media expert Kristin Buch tackles these big questions, and shares some of the resources, tools, and advice that the cable industry has to offer in response to these issues.
What challenges are families facing right now when it comes to their children’s online usage over the past few months?
Managing screen time is hard right now because many parents are juggling a lot of at-home tasks now—work, childcare, and other household responsibilities like meal preparation and cleaning. No doubt being online provides our kids with opportunities to learn, play, and connect with friends, family and their peers. But, more screen time also means more potential risk that parents need to think about. There is an increased chance that kids may be exposed to inappropriate content, face greater privacy risks, or engage in or become a target of cyberbullying.
What sorts of online safety tools can help mitigate these risks?
It is a good idea for parents to familiarize themselves with the parental controls and the websites or apps that their children are using. For example, if a child, like mine, could spend all day on YouTube, a parent should consider enabling restricted mode. This restricts the availability of potentially mature or objectionable content. If a child has their own channel, a parent can set their audience to “Made for Kids”, which will disable notifications and comments. These options are great tools for allowing kids the freedom to explore content or create their own in a safer way. FAMfriendly.com—which is the cable industry’s hub dedicated to helping parents manage their children’s online usage and media activities—has a great page that lists online resources that link to the most popular social media sites safety centers or parents resource pages.
Additionally, Charter (Windows/Mac), Comcast, Cox, Mediacom and Midco offer online parental controls that help parents manage their kids’ internet use through time limits and content filtering tools across all devices. With these solutions, parents can set up individual profiles to customize internet settings appropriate for each child in the household. This gives them the ability to pause the internet on any device at scheduled times (such as bedtime or dinner time), set time limits for individual sites, platforms, or games, filter content, and monitor their child's history online.
Also, guiding your children to trusted sites such as National Geographic Education Summer Learning Series and Social Media TestDrive will keep them busy and learning.
Aside from actual tools, what sorts of conversations should parents be having with their children as they learn to navigate the internet? And where can they get more advice on this?
It is incredibly important for parents to talk to their kids beginning at a young age about their internet usage. The focus of these talks shouldn’t just be centered around protecting the child from inappropriate content. They should also include discussion of their safety and emotional wellbeing, and how to be thoughtful about their choices so that they can use these tools autonomously. Right now, being flexible regarding boundaries and expectations around internet use is so important. This will help both sides feel empowered. It is necessary to maintain a running dialogue with kids about what they are seeing, who they are interacting with, how long they are spending on gaming or social media sites, and what information they are sharing.
There are a number of groups in this area that NCTA works closely with and supports, such as The Family Online Safety Institute, Connect Safely, The National PTA and the National Association for Media Literacy Education. All of these organizations have great resources for different age groups that parents might want to consider.
Having a solid understanding of what parental controls are available for the particular media that their child is engaging in, coupled with using tools that enable age-appropriate restrictions, will help provide a healthy and positive online experience for families during COVID-19 and beyond.
To find more resources for families on online safety and media literacy, visit FAMfriendly.com.