One of the many concerns for parents in our culture is the prominence of technology, and the risk it poses to their children’s health, welfare, and safety. From smartphones to TVs to computers, digital devices can open children up to inappropriate content and dangerous people.
A new resource from the Ethics & Public Policy Center aims to help parents protect their families from the dangers that can arise with technology. Clare Morell co-authored this guide, entitled “Raising a Family in the Digital Age: A Technology Guide for Parents,” and she joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss the guide.
“I think that the greatest danger in terms of content is really pornography,” shares Morell. “These websites that you would think are just where kids are interacting with their peers—whether it’s Facebook or Instagram or TikTok—are increasingly filled with sexual and illicit content.”
Morell explains that there are filters and software programs that parents can install on their children’s phones or computers to block pornography. But sometimes, other inappropriate content will seep through because it is considered culturally appropriate. “LGBT content is being actively promoted to kids by these ‘trans-influencers,’” warns Morell. “That type of content is widely circulating on these social media platforms and really kind of preying on the vulnerability of children.”
“The most effective thing you really can do is talk to your kids early and often about these things because these tools that you can put in place really aren’t a silver bullet solution. You want your children to become wise and discerning and willing to come to you if they do stumble across something on the internet.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Clare Morell discuss her resource, “Raising a Family in the Digital Age: A Technology Guide for Parents.”
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As parents and grandparents, we hope you are increasingly aware of the risks technology poses to the health, welfare, and safety of your children and their friends. Even with the best of intentions, inappropriate content is bound to find them. So what can and should parents do to protect their children from the risks posed by life in a digital age.
Well, there’s a new resource entitled, “Raising a Family in the Digital Age: A Technology Guide for Parents.” It’s available to you from the Ethics & Public Policy Center, and we’re joined today by one of the report’s authors, Clare Morell, to dig into that. Morell serves as policy analyst at the Ethics & Public Policy Center where she works on their Big Tech Project. Claire Morell, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
CLARE MORELL: Thank you so much for having me.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay. So we all understand that technology can be a huge time suck robbing hours from more wholesome relationships and better activities. So, first of all, let’s talk about how can parents limit screen time and put boundaries on that?
CLARE MORELL: Yes. You’re absolutely correct that these apps and devices are very addictive to children’s brains, and so without putting time limits in place, they can just get sucked away onto these devices. And so parents have tools available to them both within devices as well as within applications to set time limits. Those are now a lot of built-in parental controls, and our guide discusses how you can set those up on your devices and also on certain applications that you want your children to have limited time on. And so that really is the first step parents should put in place is activate those different parental controls to set time limits as well as just have conversations with your kids and put boundaries around the use of technology in your home, particularly their internet access making sure that that is time-limited and supervised, that they’re doing it in a public place where you can monitor what exactly they are doing online.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So I’m sure if we look at your guide, we will get the answers to this, but give us some examples of the kinds of things that parents can put on these devices to monitor or limit the time.
CLARE MORELL: There’s software that you can purchase that really gives the parents the most comprehensive set of parental controls. We give several examples, but Circle is one software that does that, allows the parental control, as well as another one called Bark. And Bark even allows you to do that on phones and through text messages as well. And then, also, there’s other softwares that just block and filter inappropriate content. So that’s not a time limit software, but there are those as well.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Time is one thing that we should be concerned about, but I think we can all agree that the greater risk is content that young people can access on these devices. So what do you consider the greatest content risks posed by this technology that it seems like almost all of our young people are into.
CLARE MORELL: So I think that the greatest danger in terms of content is really pornography. So these websites that you would think are just where kids are interacting with their peers, whether it’s Facebook or Instagram or TikTok, are increasingly filled with sexual and illicit content. So it’s, honestly, becoming the place to kind of first encounter this, on just regular social media platforms. It’s not something kids have to go looking for. It’s now finding them on social media. So, pornography is probably the greatest type of harmful content followed, though, increasingly closely by LGBT content that is being actively promoted to kids by these, “trans influencers.” And that type of content is widely circulating on these social media platforms and really kind of preying on the vulnerability of children to recruit them to their lifestyles. And so parents should be aware as well, particularly because the filters that you might put on your devices for pornography aren’t necessarily going to block that type of content, which is these activists kind of increasingly promoting the trans movement trying to recruit children to transition their gender and kind of join their community.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So let’s talk a little bit more about pornography because you’re not always talking about these young people that might be looking at pornography, but you’re talking about potential predators, right?
CLARE MORELL: It’s both. People post pornographic illicit materials, videos, photos, to these social media platforms that then tend to get circulated because, sadly, that type of content appeals to the fleshly nature of people. And so then it can get very promoted by the website’s algorithms as people are watching and clicking on that. And so your child might stumble across that because it is circulating on the platforms. And then the second threat is predators like human traffickers who are trying to sexually exploit children. And so they go to where the children are and try to reach out to them via messages on a lot of these platforms, appearing like a friend and kind of grooming them over time to try to recruit them into online child exploitation or sex trafficking. So that risk is out there as well.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So we said at the beginning, and I think we can all agree that the best that we do, some of this stuff is still going to get through. You mentioned talking to your kids. So what kind of conversations are we having about the time spent on technology and the kinds of influences? What should parents and grandparents be saying to their kids?
CLARE MORELL: The most effective thing you really can do is talk to your kids early and often about these things because these tools that you can put in place really aren’t a silver bullet solution. You want your children to become wise and discerning and willing to come to you if they do stumble across something on the internet. You want to be the person they turn to, and so we recommend that you start talking to your kids a lot earlier than you would like. I think that as young as six or seven, you just don’t know what they might come across. Even if you’re not allowing them to use those devices in your home, they have friends. Friends can show them things, and so just trying to talk to your children early about the appropriate uses of technology, as well as warning them about inappropriate things that they could come across.
You want to have these kinds of conversations frequently. So, it’s not just one big sit-down conversation about this, but it’s as you’re going to school or as you’re driving in the car or as you’re talking in the kitchen—just reiterating over and over, “If you come across something that makes you uncomfortable online, or your friend shows you something that bothers you or disturbs you, or you see an image of naked people or anything like that, don’t freak out. Come talk to me about what you saw.” Because you as the parent really want to be the one they’re turning to. You don’t want them turning to their friends or the internet for answers to these questions about things that they may have come across. Also, use those conversations to talk about the boundaries that you all are putting in place as a family and why you are doing that, explaining to your kids the different threats out there, why you care about them; you’re trying to protect them by putting boundaries in place.
I think another important one is to tell your kids if someone offers to show you something on a phone or a computer, you can just tell them “We don’t look at phones in my family,” or “We don’t look at other friend’s computers in my family.” Just training your kids because you won’t always be with them to protect them, but giving them tools and rules to go back to that apply to your family that they can use even when they’re outside the home.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What kinds of conversations should you be having with your kids about privacy? How do you talk to them about that?
CLARE MORELL: That is another really important point. I would say that just being completely honest I really don’t think children, particularly under the ages of 16 or 18 need to be on social media. So, I would first say that if parents can delay social media use as long as possible that that is ideal, to really push that off as close to adulthood as you can because of some of the privacy risks as well as the harmful content. But if you do permit them to be on these apps, then it’s really important that you talk to them about not posting things that they wouldn’t want other people to see forever, just that if it goes onto the internet it’s there forever. So, training your kids to be very sensitive about personal information about themselves, about their family, and you really do want to train them because for better or for worse, the internet is kind of a forever world, in the sense that if it goes online and someone else has it, even if you go back and delete that post or that thing, it’s out there now.
Also, parents should be aware certain apps and devices are better at protecting privacy than others. So I would just say, in particular, TikTok has been shown to be very leaky with user data and also has admitted that Chinese employees are allowed to access U.S. user data. So, this then gets into the realm of national security threats that other countries could be gathering this data on our kids and on us. I do just try to warn people to be wary particularly of TikTok, but then more generally social media websites, in the terms of service, they have the right to collect this data on us. We really don’t own our data; we agreed that to use their service means they get to collect our data, and so while these services might be free, we are paying with our time, our attention, and our data, which they use then to sell ads and make their money off ad revenue.
People aren’t always aware that you don’t really own your data. You kind of can’t take it back from the company or move it if you want to use a different app or platform. It stays with them, and so parents do need to warn their children about being really careful about the things that they post online, as well as just being cautious about certain apps to just keep them off entirely.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Last question. What do we do? We don’t want to scare our kids away from technology, right, because there’s lots of good stuff on the internet? It’s a great resource. It’s a great thing to learn how to do. So how do we do that? What are the kinds of conversations we’re having with our kids where we’re trying to explain how to get to the good stuff without really being ensnared?
CLARE MORELL: The biggest thing you can do is actually model that for your kids. Our children are watching us, and they learn a lot more from the things that we do than necessarily what we say. So I think parents modeling a healthy relationship with technology, using it in your home in ways that brings the family together, if that’s playing an online trivia game together or watching a movie, those types of things are really using technology to create real life relationships to build and invest into the family, versus using them in a way that’s really separating and kind of isolating people by everyone being on their own screen and not interacting with each other. We should watch our own use of technology. How often we’re on our phones or computers around our kids, whether we’re giving more attention to that than to our children is a very big thing that we can do as parents, really watch our own relationships.
And then putting in place those boundaries that we talked about, not having phones at the table and enjoying meals together or having a phone box where everyone puts their phones at the end of the day when they come home, to create those times and spaces for everyone to really be together. There are ways you can show children how to use technology well. Maybe it’s for educational purposes, like you want to do a family kind of research into the country of Spain, and so you’re going to pull up the internet together and look at, oh, what do they eat in Spain and do activities that are helping kids to learn things from the internet that is involving the whole family. It is not just kids going off on their own playing a game or chatting with friends on an app. So I think modeling it and then just showing kids how to use things well to learn to engage in technology in a healthy way rather than kind of just allowing them to go do whatever they want on their phone. So it’s going to take a lot of intentionality from parents.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, great. Well, we’re just about out of time. Before we go, where can our listeners go to follow your work and find a copy of your report, “Raising a Family in the Digital Age: A Technology Guide for Parents”?
CLARE MORELL: You can go to the website, E-P-P-C.org, so that’s the acronym for our organization. EPPC.org. You can click on my scholar page, Clare Morell, where you can see all the articles that I’ve written on these subjects. And you can also then click on the Big Tech Project page, and that is where you’ll find a link to this new parent guide that has a nice downloadable PDF you can use to read in detail more about the things you can do as a parent to protect your kids.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Clare Morell with the Ethics & Public Policy Center, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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