Ask The Mediatrician

For Parents

Dr. Rich the MediatricianMeet Dr. Rich the Mediatrician®

Mediatrician® Michael Rich, MD, MPH, founded the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Children's Hospital Boston to understand and respond to the effects of media on the physical, mental, and social health of children through research, translation, and education. He is sharing CMCH resources with Comcast customers to help keep kids healthy and safe in the Media Age. Dr. Rich is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Associate Professor of Society, Human Development and Health at Harvard School of Public Health.

Ask the Mediatrician®

As the Mediatrician®, Michael Rich, MD, MPH, answers parents' frequently asked questions about strategies for raising healthy children at www.askthemediatrician.org It is his goal to provide you with science-based answers and practical solutions that you can use to help children use media in healthy ways. What's YOUR question about media? Go ahead and ask!

My 15-year-old son has taken it upon himself to secretly open up social media accounts, one of which is Snapchat. We found out about these sites because we do go through his iPod and computer from time to time. He knows that we have the passwords to all his online accounts for which we have given permission. While I don't believe that he is doing anything objectionable on these sites that we have not reviewed, I do not like the behavior of his opening secret accounts. I worry about online safety issues, and lately he seems to feel that he knows everything and that we know nothing. What would be the best way for me to address my son and get these accounts closed?

-Will Something Snap(chat)?

Dear Will,

You are doing the right thing by recognizing that you must parent your son in the digital domain, but this must be done with respect for and sensitivity to his growing independence. One of the primary developmental tasks of adolescence is individuation, establishing and experimenting with one's identity, separate from parents and caregivers. Your son's situation is similar to the adolescent who kept a diary or journal under lock and key, which in previous generations drove parents crazy as well. Keeping secret social media accounts can be viewed as part of your son's individuation process, as he is trying out personas and behaviors on his peers and the world at large in a domain that is not observed or critiqued by his parents.

Remember, the goal of approaching your son about these accounts is to keep the lines of communication open, remain a parenting presence in his online as well as offline life, and to use your executive brain functions to help him safely and healthfully navigate the digital domain. Speak with him calmly and respectfully, and explain your main points:

  • Acknowledge that the "secret" accounts exist. Be up front about the fact that you are aware of your son's social media accounts, including Snapchat, and that you understand that what motivated his setting them up without asking permission is his natural drive toward independence. Being understanding rather than judgmental or punitive can help you build mutual trust and open communication with your son.
  • Assure him that your intent is not to pry but to help him master his social interactions. No 15 year old has a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive functions like impulse control, future thinking, and understanding consequences. You can model and share these skills with your son as you help him understand that what he posts, forwards, and responds to online can have unintended consequences, such as hurting others, and will affect how he is seen by his peers. Let him know that your goal is his happiness and freedom, but that happiness and freedom are tied to taking responsibility for one's actions. Assure him that you don't intend to intrude unless his actions are dangerous or illegal, but that your ability to be there for him depends on your awareness of where he is and what he is doing there.

While this conversation may initially anger your son, who may feel as though you are infringing on his privacy, don't be afraid of his anger or back down from the points that need to be addressed. Throughout this conversation, remember that although he didn't ask permission to join these social media sites, he joined them in a space where he knew you could become aware of them. While he may not say so, he may even want your back-up and reassurance that he is okay. Research shows that many children feel closer to their parents when everything is out in the open and when they are given clear parameters of behavior as a member of the family. That doesn't mean he won't break the rules, but it does mean that he is being respected enough to be treated as the adult he would like to be, with individual responsibilities for his and others' well-being.

What is the consequence of watching the same movie (designed to send prosocial messages to preschoolers) over and over? It's only about 1 hour long, and it's not passive. We watch it together and we interact throughout it, with singing and dancing along. My daughter is 2.5 and she would be happy to watch this two times a day.

-Watching over and over, in Cambridge, MA

Dear Over and over,

Your daughter is right at the age where she can really learn from screen media. It is developmentally normal for her to want to watch the same movie over and over (and over and over) again - that's how she masters the material. The scenario you describe is probably working well for your daughter for a few reasons:

  1. The content is developed to support prosocial learning. Part of what your daughter mastering is an understanding of how communities form and how people interact within them. Shows can portray a society where all types of people from all types of backgrounds (religious, cultural, political) are able to form a successful, dynamic society. And, in fact, research has found that many children who watch such programs exhibit gains in prosocial behavior, as well as in academic readiness and achievement and self esteem.
  2. You are watching with her. She learns from what she watches not only by processing what she sees on her own, but more importantly by processing it with you. You help her make sense of the content in ways that work with who she is and what interests her.
  3. You are interacting with the material. By dancing and singing along with the movie, you help move her learning beyond skills and drills and into complex communication. You are using the movie as a catalyst for the kinds of interactions and lessons you want her to learn.

In short, you are co-viewing developmentally optimal, research-based educational programming with your daughter in ways that encourage interaction with the material and with you - and that is likely to have a positive effect on your daughter's academic and social skills. Just remember to make sure that it doesn't get in the way of the other important things in her day, like sleep and unstructured play.

I have a 5 and 10 year old and am wondering how I can monitor their internet use. We have a wireless Lynksys system, a Macbook, Wii, Xbox, and a Windows computer. Any thoughts?

-Surfing in South Jersey

Dear Surfing,

There are a number of software and firmware products that claim to monitor and/or restrict children's internet use, but these products vary in quality, may not be compatible across devices, and I have yet to hear of one that stymies the children more than it stymies the adults trying to use it. Technological fixes can't take the place of engaging with your children and educating them about internet safety.

First, remember that children of different ages (like your 5-year-old and 10-year-old) have very different developmental capabilities. Teach them separately, giving them the internet skills and tools they need as they become capable of managing them in ways that are both healthy and effective. Ask them to tell you why they are going online, and discuss the specific goals they have while surfing the web.

Here are some technological and non-technological tips that can help as well:

  • Place your computer in a centrally located area of your home (such as a living room or kitchen desk) where you can easily see them using the computer.
  • Have separate passwords for the computer and internet access (wireless router). My 6- and 8-year olds don't know either password, so they have to ask to go on the computer - and they have to ask again to go online. That means that, while using the computer, they won't end up online by accident or on purpose without my knowing and providing supervision.
  • Pay attention to your children's use of smartphones and tablets, as these devices often have apps that seamlessly take the user to the internet. Password protect these devices the same way you do home computers and gaming systems - and enter that password yourself each time rather than giving the password to your child.
  • Get comfortable with the hardware and software in your home. This way you will be able to teach your children how to safely and effectively use the internet by modeling it with your own online activity and by routinely and regularly interacting with them when they are online.

What is the best way I can block websites with sexual content that appear through Web searches on my 15 year old's iPad and still let him use the Internet for safe sites? The built-in controls are a blunt instrument and block too much or all content.

-Seeking Better Blocking, in Nashville, TN

Dear Seeking,

As you're finding, software controls aren't very effective at blocking sexual content. They may allow sites that are creatively named while blocking innocuous sites on, say, breast cancer awareness. Also, if your son wants to get around them, he will. That's why the best software for protecting your son is the knowledge in his head.

First, know that it's natural and healthy for him to be curious about sex. But as you imply, the world of sex online is a minefield: The images he sees there are likely to be unrealistic, dehumanizing, and treating sex as a commodity - as something to buy and sell rather than an intimate expression of love and trust. That can affect his understanding of sex.

That's where you come in. As a parent, you can direct him toward online information that will support him in developing positive sexuality (take a look at Scarleteen and GoAskAlice). You can also help him interpret the negative portrayals he sees online by having a candid conversation with him. Ask questions like, "What is really going on there?", "How do you think that makes her feel?" and "Is that the kind of relationship you want to have?"

The more that his sexual education can occur out in the open and in contact with you, the less of an impact the schoolyard or Internet "sex ed" will have.

Frequently Asked Questions

At what age should I begin discussing Internet safety issues with my child?

It is best to start a dialog with your child when he/she is just beginning to use the computer. This gives your child the expectation that you will be involved in his/her online life and makes it clear from the beginning that using the Internet is a responsibility as well as a privilege that needs to be done thoughtfully and safely.

What is the best way to start a dialog about Internet Safety with my child?

Keep Communicating. Remember that you don't need to be a computer expert to talk to your child about Internet safety. It needs to be a continuing dialog that is part of a regular conversation and not just a one-time event. Talking about the Internet does not need to be a divisive issue in the home. It can be a great way to develop new kinds of family connectedness. Have your child show you his favorite Internet sites, discover new sites together, and share in the excitement of the rich benefits of the Internet.

Should I set limits on the amount of time my child can use the computer/Internet? If so, what is appropriate?

Setting limits is essential to your child's health and safety. The Center on Media and Child Health recommends limiting recreational computer use to 1 hour on school nights and 2 hours on weekends. Preschoolers should be limited to between 20 and 40 minutes per day.

With kids ages 8 to 18 spending on average 44.5 hours per week in front of screens, parent are increasingly concerned that screen time is replacing real world experiences. Nearly 23% of youth report that they feel "addicted to video games." It's important for kids to strike a balance between time spent on-and-offline. No matter what the activity is, it's not healthy for computer use to take time away from important everyday activities such as homework, chores, playing, eating and sleeping.

A fun and easy way to discuss this issue with your child is to read the book, Faux Paw Goes to the Games: Balancing Real Life with Screen Time, available at www.iKeepSafe.org

My child already knows not to interact with strangers online. Are there other things I should explain?

Kids also need to understand the consequences of illegal downloading, cyberbullying, and accessing inappropriate content. As technology changes, so do the risks and benefits; that's why it's important for parents to continue the dialog about Internet safety.

What is cyber-bullying and how can I protect my child from becoming a victim of it?

Cyber-bullying is when a child is tormented, harassed, or humiliated by another child using the Internet or other digital technologies such as cell phones. Often this happens on social networking sites.

Most bullying starts small, seemingly private between friends, and then mushrooms into a public forum until it is out of the instigator's control. Everyone is a potential target. Half of students admit to being bullied online, while an estimated 79 percent of teens say it is a problem.

Here are tips to discuss with your child:

  • Always read messages about others as if they were about you. If they hurt, don't spread them and discourage the sender from doing so.
  • Never respond to flame or online harassment.
  • Block bullies from sending future messages.
  • On social networking sites, select the setting that allows you to preview all comments and posts of another user before they are made public on your site.
  • Delete Buddies or friends if they post any comments or images that are meant to embarrass, threaten or harass.
  • Document and report all harassment.

For detailed instructions on how to prevent and report cyber-bullying, watch the Cyber-bullying Parent Tutorial at www.iKeepSafe.org.

See other step-by-step, video tutorials for parents about social networking, Web 2.0, cyber-bullying, and how to document and report abuse at www.iKeepSafe.org.