By Diana Simeon
These days, the majority of middle schoolers have a smartphone in their pocket. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, about 68 percent of 13 to 14 year olds have a smartphone, with other studies showing the average age that many children receive a smartphone is around 12.
If you have given — or are just about to give — your adolescent a smartphone, then it’s an excellent time to establish ground rules for how your middle schooler is allowed to use that device. Here are 7 online safety tips for middle school students — and younger students too! — courtesy of Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of Family Internet Safety Institute.
7 Steps for Online Safety
- Talk with your middle schooler. Conversation is key when it comes to online safety for middle school students. “It’s important to keep an open dialog of communication going, but also to stay calm while you are doing this,” says Balkam. “I know this is easier said than done. However, if you lose it, they won’t talk to you.” Parents should expect their middle schoolers will see or hear something you wish they wouldn’t — and perhaps even do things you wish they wouldn’t — so it’s key to keep the lines of communication open, so you can use those as teachable moments.
- Educate yourself. “It’s amazing how often I hear, ‘My mom or dad doesn’t know how to ….’,” says Balkam. “Try to stay up to date and understand their world.” There are two easy ways to do this. Jump right in, by signing up for social media and other apps your middle schooler wants to use. And asking questions: What is Instagram? What is SnapChat? What are your friends using it for? Etc. “This will give you a way into their world,” notes Balkam.
- Use parental controls and monitor your child’s use of the device. “This is particularly true of younger adolescents,” notes Balkam. Find out what parental control options are available for your child’s smartphone device. Also be sure to check the settings on their apps (in general, the more private the better). Lastly, Internet safety in middle school requires parents to be aware of how and how often their adolescent is using a screen. “You may even think abut creating safe places in your home: no electronics at the dinner table or the kitchen or make Monday nights technology free, for example,” says Balkam.
- Set ground rules. It’s helpful at the outset for both parents and their adolescent to sign a family safety contract. You can download one at the Family Internet Safety Institute’s website. Balkam also advocates a tech curfew, especially on weekdays. “We recommend 10 p.m. in high school and 9 p.m. in middle school.” After curfew, all electronics are stashed away — not in the bedroom — and charged up overnight. Violations of the safety contract should result in a consequence. “When my daughter was young, we found her texting at two in the morning,” recalls Balkam. “24 hours without her cell phone really got her attention.”
- Friend and follow, but don’t stalk. Parents of middle schoolers should friend or follow their children online, but be upfront about it. Use inappropriate posts — again, stay calm — as teachable moments. Parents should also be aware that most social media platforms do not allow children under 13. “So, you can say to an 11 year old, no you can’t be on social media until you are 13,” says Balkam.
- Explore, share, and celebrate. “Yes, there are risks with technology. Yes, there are actual harms. But there are extraordinary rewards too,” says Balkam. That includes powerful new ways to create online, plus access to a 24/7 library of resources.
- Most importantly: be a good digital role model. Remember that online safety for middle school starts at home. “Curb your own bad digital habits,” stresses Balkam. “Don’t be that parent in the restaurant who pulls out the iPhone during a family meal.”
Stephen Balkam is founder and CEO of the Family Internet Safety Institute. Visit FOSI.org to find many resources for online safety for middle school students.