The Kids Are Online: Are They Alright?

Study says content is "the new daycare," but more screen time means more risk.

Posted Apr 27, 2020

Image by Виктория Бородинова from Pixabay
Boys online.
Source: Image by Виктория Бородинова from Pixabay

Over the past month, nearly every Internet safety organization and expert (including me) has suggested parents ease up on their pre-pandemic "screen time" rules. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) relaxed their usual screen limit recommendations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, stating

You should still set limits on screen time, but you should prioritize your mental health—and that of your children—which might mean allowing a little more screen time for schoolwork or for connecting with friends, for example.

With these blessings, the floodgates have officially been flung open. Kids are online more than ever, and parents are so buried with their own work (usually on screens) they understandably don't have time to be super vigilant about what their kids might be doing online. A study by Ipsos US finds content has become "the new daycare." According to Virginia Lennon, Senior Vice President of Ipsos US, Media Development, "During the COVID crisis, content has become vital for parents to ease anxiety, keep the kids busy, and create family time. Kids of all ages are currently watching more content than ever across all devices."

Ipsos US
Content is "the new daycare."
Source: Ipsos US

The downside? "More time online means more risk," warns Richard Guerry, founder of the Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-Phone Communication (IROC2). Too much of anything is rarely a good thing, including significantly more time spent on the digital highway—and we all seem to be on an extended, but necessary, online road trip. As screen time increases, by nature, so too will the risk of multiple threats that our children will encounter.

So what are these risks? Here are the big three (and what you can do about them):

Disturbing News

Just last summer, a Common Sense Media survey found "more than half of teens (54 percent) get news at least a few times a week from social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and 50 percent get news from YouTube." In normal times, it might be good to hear that teens are staying well-informed. But these are not normal times. The same COVID-19 headlines keeping adults awake at night are being seen by kids too. 

After 9/11, we learned that the more television coverage one viewed, the greater likelihood there was of that person developing PTSD, whether the viewer was an adult or a child. Just two decades later, a similarly horrifying event is playing out in the media, except this time many kids are seeing this news alone on their screens, without parents nearby to console, explain, or diffuse. In addition to disturbing content, there is a vast amount of misinformation floating about online as well.

This generation has already experienced a world complicated by school shootings, global warming, and more. Already-anxious kids really need adults to know what is potentially being delivered to them on their screens. "This is why open lines of communication… are so vital," says Guerry. 

What Can You Do?

  • Be sure children respect age limits on the social media sites and games they use. This will protect very young children from seeing inappropriate content.
  •  Use this Technology Agreement to help your children set screen limits.
  • Consider using parental controls and filters.
  • Talk to your kids about what they are seeing on their screens. If your children are feeling stressed, let them know they can text START to 741741 to chat 24 hours a day with a live, trained counselor at Crisis Text Line.
Ipsos US
Activities during COVID-19
Source: Ipsos US

Cyberbullying

According to Ross Ellis, founder and Chief Executive Officer of STOMPOut Bullying, "we are definitely receiving reports of increased cyberbullying. Kids are spending more time online. They surf different social media apps and are staying on them longer than they have in the past because they have the time to do it. Parents aren't watching as closely now because they are overburdened with homeschooling and keeping their families safe." What a parent may not see, or even be aware of, is when and if a child is being bullied or is bullying others online.

In addition to cyberbullying, "digital drama" (online arguments and disagreements that can feel hurtful) are happening with increased frequency as peer relationships move online. It's important to watch for signs that your children might be experiencing cyberbullying or digital drama. Are they becoming increasingly reclusive, depressed, or secretive about their online activities? If so, it's time to check-in.

Additionally, if your kids are reporting that the reason they are online for hours on end is due to "schoolwork," it might be time for you to become skeptical about this sudden devotion to their studies. Find out how they are really spending their time online.  

What Else Can You Do?

Online Predators

"Increased presence online means children are at an even greater risk of encountering cyber predators who know how to exploit their vulnerabilities," warns Matt Wright, chief of Homeland Security Investigations' (HSI) Child Exploitation Investigations Unit, in a recent press release. The FBI has also issued a warning to parents about predators targeting children online during COVID-19, saying that strangers might try to groom kids or get them to send explicit photos, for example, and once they have the photos, they could blackmail them for more or even try to meet them in person.

What You Can Do:

  • HSI has partnered with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's NetSmartz and the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces to develop Project iGuardian. Check out the resources for families on its website.
  • See the FBI's recommendations and victim reporting guidelines.
  • Make sure your children know they can always tell you if a stranger approaches them online.

We're All on Edge

Understandably, everyone is on edge at the moment. That's why we are seeing a rise in divisive rhetoric online. "Even adults have to be careful about how we use our keypads, especially since so many young eyes are now online more frequently. Too many adults (especially under stress) are quick to judge and slow to consider what the long-term ramifications of their posts or comments will be—or that there is a person on the other side of the screen," says Sue Scheff, Internet expert and author of Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate. Sadly, we are witnessing a corrosion of civility and humanity online, she says.

Thankfully, there are many examples of positivity and kindness online, too, from actor John Krasinski's simply magnificent Some Good News series to Lady Gaga's Together at Home concert. While these examples may be a bit too "OK Boomer" for your teens to like, the point is there is plenty of good content for them to be watching. Help them find it and be sure their screen time tilts heavily towards the positive and away from the stressful, divisive, and dangerous. 

References

Ipsos Media “Kids & Family Fast Facts” Study, April 2020