Support your kids through the “aging down” effect of being online
“Fourth grade feels like it’s the new sixth grade,” says Jill Murphy. “Content is getting pushed to kids at a much earlier age.” This phenomenon is called aging down.
Like in any environment, it’s natural for kids to explore their boundaries. With tech, it’s easy for kids to be playing one game and jump over to something else happening in that world on their screen. “The challenge is that what they’re exploring is dramatically different than if they went from one game in the classroom to another,” explains Murphy. “It can be targeted advertising. It could potentially take their data and information. It could be explicit.”
“How do we give our kids the vocabulary now – the understanding that they’re going to run into things that feel uncomfortable or maybe you don’t know what to do with?”
Murphy notes that kids don’t even have to be reading for this to happen, which is why it’s so important to start talking to them at a young age about how to navigate the information that might come up on their device. “How do we give our kids the vocabulary now – the understanding that they’re going to run into things that feel uncomfortable or maybe you don’t know what to do with?” says Merve Lapus. “How are we building them up with enough agency, understanding, and trusted places to go?” It’s a reality that kids will run into these situations – it’s a parent’s job to give them tools for recognizing how they feel safe, to open up the conversation so kids feel comfortable going to you with these issues.
“The number one reason why so many kids have not gone to parents is the fear of removing the device, taking away something that is a part of how they socialize, how they connect with their friends, how they learn,” says Lapus. That’s why setting expectations and guardrails at a young age is so important to support your kids in navigating online spaces.
To our kids, the online world is the same world as the real world
Kids as young as preschoolers and kindergarten can recognize behavioral cues. They’re starting to learn right from wrong, kind behavior, what doesn’t feel good. If your five-year-old is playing Roblox, observe how they’re playing, what kinds of conversations are happening. “It’s an excellent opportunity to see how your kid is responding, because how they’re responding there is how you want them to respond in the real world,” explains Murphy.
If they’re having trouble with a friend online, you can treat it the same way you might if it was happening in the classroom. If your child doesn’t like the way a friend is treating them, you can say: “Why did it make you feel like that? What’s a better thing that he could have said?”
The difference for kids is that there’s no distinction between online and offline friends. “It’s the same world,” says Murphy. “They may not hang out with that kid that they play with online at school, but they go to the same school.”
“You want your child to apply the same principles [here],” says Murphy. “It’s still not okay to be rude or use certain language online.”
Gatekeeping has many different contexts
Starting the conversation about behavior and expectations for your kids online will also be critical for when kids start to push the boundaries even more. “Instead of a massive discussion: ‘We have house rules. Here’s how you can game. This is how you can watch TV’ – it’s just too much. So little baby steps and start young,” says Murphy. And don’t just wait for something bad to have a discussion, she adds. Praise them when you notice good behavior, mention that you noticed they were kind to a friend.
It’s developmentally appropriate for kids to be exploring and learning from each other – they’re doing that online now too. It’s important that we provide kids these spaces and the ability to navigate them because “kids are learning so much about things that they’re passionate about,” notes Lapus. YouTube might have a lot of inappropriate content, but it also allows kids to dive into interests in a way that wasn’t possible in the past.
“We think about it as raising a generation of critical thinkers. We’re not trying to just cover kids’ eyes.”
“We think about it as raising a generation of critical thinkers. We’re not trying to just cover kids’ eyes,” says Murphy. Thinking you can completely shield your kid is unrealistic. If they don’t have a phone, their friends do. If they’re not allowed on TikTok, that content is also appearing on YouTube and Instagram.
Gatekeeping has many different contexts and different kids might need different scaffolding around their online activity. Using a third-party app, or even the screen time monitoring that is built into phones, can be useful. “There’s all sorts of rationales for why parents do that, but the assumption that something bad is happening is immediately going to put your kids on defense,” says Murphy. Starting with these conversations about your rules and values in preschool and kindergarten will help your kid feel less judged when you want to know what’s going on.
“It’s not online and offline. It’s all of it. It’s their whole little life.”
“At the end of the day, it’s how they’re interacting with that information or what they’re seeing as opposed to stopping them from using anything,” she says. “It’s not online and offline. It’s all of it. It’s their whole little life.”