Digital Parenting: Responsible Tech Use

with Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute

Screen time for children has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stephen Balkam, Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, joins host Tetiana Anderson to share how families can maintain a balance of safety and responsible tech use as students prepare to go back to school.

Posted on:

July 30, 2021

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: The COVID-19 pandemic upended education. Screen time for students skyrocketed with the move to remote learning, and as the new school year begins, the question is, how can families maintain a balance of safety and responsible tech use? Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Parental controls remain one option, but for some parents, there is a shift towards a concept of shared responsibility for kids' online safety. And here with me to talk all about that is Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. Stephen, thanks for being here.

Balkam: Well, thanks so much for having me.

Anderson: So when we talk about this issue of safety of any kind, it's really important to take into account perspective, and with online safety, your organization says that parents of different ages and different age groups have different concerns. So break that down for us. I mean, what does a Baby Boomer parent worry about versus a Gen X or a Millennial parent?

Balkam: Well, in our research that we conducted last year, we discovered that Baby Boomers, in other words, much older parents, are far more concerned with outside threats like predators. Gen X parents told us that they were more concerned about inappropriate content like sex and violence and so on. And Millennial parents, interestingly enough, were more concerned about behavioral issues like cyberbullying, including that their own kids might be a perpetrator. So that's rather interesting shift through the generations.

Anderson: And as we return to school, I mean, what's really the best way to teach responsible technology? I mean, is there a balance that needs to be struck here?

Balkam: Yeah, I think back to school is a perfect time to sit down with your kid or kids and to have this discussion and say, "Look, you're going back to school. There are going to be some rules around your tech use at home during the week. And sometimes there'll be different rules during the weekend." What we encourage parents to do, though, rather than just laying down the law, is to work with your kids and to collaborate with them and ask them what they think would be reasonable rules, reasonable amounts of screen time, and so on. But obviously you as a parent would have the final say. But the more the kids can be involved in the creation and the discussion about it, including the sanctions when they go over or mess up, the more they're going to buy into the household rules.

Anderson: Stephen, as you were talking, a lot of this seems to be about communication -- parents talking with their kids, kids talking with their parents. And I know that the Family Online Safety Institute has a tool for that. It's called "7 Steps to Good Digital Parenting." And I'm hoping you can sort of run us through the top three things that you think that parents and kids need to know about right now.

Balkam: Well, not surprisingly, number one is talk with your kids. Talk early. Talk often. Talk on an annual basis. As they're going back to school is a particularly good time to sit down, to convey your values as a family, go through the rules once again about what's acceptable behavior or not online, where you can take your technology. I mean, we had a "no tech in the bedroom" rule, for instance, in our house and no phones at the dining room table. You know, just figure out between you and do it collaboratively with your kids and make them -- help them become invested in those rules. Another one that we stress, obviously, is to use parental controls. In other words, use those controls that will block the kinds of content and behavior, particularly for the younger kids. But as they get older, going into high school, there's kind of a shift from parental controls to online safety tools. And these are the tools that teenagers and young people themselves use to block, to report, to stay private. So talk to your kids, "Show me what sorts of -- How would you report something on Facebook or on Snapchat or on TikTok if something bad came up?" And be interested in how they themselves would stay safe on those sites. And thirdly, most importantly for parents out there, be a good digital role model yourself. Learn how to put your screens down. We often hear from kids that they simply can't get their parents' attention. Mom's always on Facebook. Dad's just checking his e-mail at dinner. Give your kids face time. Give them in-real-life time, and they will be a lot happier for it.

Anderson: Leading by example -- so important. And I'm wondering how kids, how students are sort of reacting to this changing face of technology, this changing face for the need for safety now that we are going into our new normal and we don't have to deal with these things that dominated our lives so very much during coronavirus.

Balkam: Yeah, I mean, kids have experienced and tasted a lot of freedom, ironically, tasted some freedom in the last year in the sense that the screen-time limits that a lot of families had were basically left behind because kids had to be on screens during the day for school. And parents recognized that the only way they were going to be able to socialize with their friends was to be online, and, for that matter, to communicate with grandmom and granddad. So I think that kids have gotten used to being able to access whatever they wanted whenever they wanted via screens. And I think it's going to be an adjustment for them, as well as for us as parents as they go back to in-real-life school. And it wouldn't surprise me also that we'll see more hybrid teaching anyway, with kids being given assignments online, kids being asked to work more online, collaboratively online than perhaps before the pandemic because they've gotten used to new tools -- Zoom's an obvious example -- but many new collaborative tools that are on laptops rather than on a chalkboard.

Anderson: And, Stephen, if people want to find out more about your organization, what's the website? Where can they go?

Balkam: -- F-O-S-I-dot-O-R-G. And you'll find the seven steps. You'll find an online safety contract. You'll find a good digital reputation checklist. You'll find blogs and videos and all kinds of things to help you as a parent get your head around and get your hands around your kids' technology use.

Anderson: Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute, thanks for being here.

Balkam: Thanks again for having me.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and around the nation, log on to I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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