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Digital Parenting Tips From a Millennial Mom

The summer before sixth grade, I got a new Tamagotchi and my very first screen name. I was now Petunia886, and as often as I could (or the phone lines would allow), I instant-messaged friends like GotMilk554, tinkered around with my Angelfire HTML coding and wasted hours searching for the perfect blinking .gif image to capture the ~*BFF-ness*~ of my friendships.

We stalked AOL profiles (“Is that quote about me?”), detailed our lives via away messages (“Gym, tanning, then who knows! Hit up the cell!”) and pioneered the expansion of social media through our coming-of-age years. We had AOL, then AIM and MySpace, and then finally YouTube and college-only Facebook, all seemingly for and by my generation.

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I suppose we’re called “Millennials,” but all that really means is that we were the last generation to experience some sort of separation from technology, and the first generation to have had social media infiltrate our lives while we were still kids. In other words, we might have a perspective worth listening to, especially about digital parenting, and especially especially now that Millennials are parenting too.

1. Some of the stuff kids find is dangerous and disturbing.

We clicked it; they’ll click it.

When I broached the topic of young kids and the Internet with my Millennial-based readership, they had a lot to say about it.

“I think it shouldn't be taken lightly,” wrote one reader. “I was exposed to graphic porn at a young age on accident with friends and it really disturbed me as a kid because you can't process it. I'm not scarred or anything, but knowing they can see stuff like that as a young kid is even more disturbing. Do what you can to keep it out of their eyes.”

Every generation has had the sneaking of dirty magazines and lingerie catalogs, but take it from someone who went through middle school with the Internet, your kids will be exposed to some PG-13 stuff—and now more than ever. Elementary-school aged children have access to Instagram and YouTube right in their pockets, and they can easily type #booty into the search bar (with privacy settings and all). They can easily click on “Justin Bieber Sex Tape” while watching a Selena Gomez video on YouTube, and then jump three feet in the air when mom walks into the room because kids are curious and they’re going to click it.

We clicked it; they’ll click it. And if your kids don’t have the access, at least one of their friends does. So maybe we shift our focus from “How can I stop my kid from seeing something disturbing?” to, “How can I keep the communication lines open so that we’ll be able to talk about it when they do?”

2. Some stuff on the Internet can expand their minds and hearts.

Our kids can be exposed to incredible people and incredible ideas.

Despite the risks, I happen to think that the Internet (yes, even social media) is the best thing to ever happen to our species. We have instant communication, global connectedness and access to more education than ever.

Sure there are grenades and booby traps to avoid—in the form of desensitization, sensory overload and the addictive nature of a blinking screen—but there are also incredible stories, grassroots efforts and mind-expanding YouTube channels. Our kids can be exposed to incredible people and incredible ideas, if we steer them in that direction.

3. Do you know how addicting these things are?

You didn’t just give your kid an iPod Touch for Christmas; you gave her an escape, a distraction.

Virtually every Millennial parent I talked to has said the same two things: 1) We have to monitor our kids and really understand the technology ourselves, and 2) We have our own Internet addictions to handle, and these poor 7-year-old kids on Instagram won’t stand a chance.

You didn’t just give your kid an iPod Touch for Christmas; you gave her an escape, a distraction. The earlier this addiction gets ingrained, the harder it’ll be to live any other way. Keep that in mind.

4. Banning isn’t the only answer.

We have to recognize when their “real world” is.

I’ve noticed an alarming trend: Parents either have no idea what the technology is so they ban it completely, or they have no idea what the technology is and go with the “well everyone else is doing it” flow. Even if you don’t want the technology in your house, at their age, there’s a good chance they’ll be exposed to it elsewhere. And so it’s important to understand the apps—be it Instagram, Snapchat, Kik, etc.—and have a conversation about it.

Here’s the reality: If our job as parents is to help our children form scripts, values and coping strategies for the real world, then we have to recognize when their “real world” is. We are living in a technologically driven society, more infused and dependent with each passing year. You can debate the horrors and should's on your own time, but there’s no dialing back. Your resistance means nothing.

Denying, avoiding and forbidding is one approach, but a “Millennial mom” reader of mine made a good point:

“I was raised by strict parents and was forbidden from instant messenger and MySpace (the social media then),” said Mary Jo Herlocker. “And the forbidden aspect of it just made it more curious and intriguing for me, so I found a way to sneak around my parents' rules. This is where kids get in trouble, when they resort to lying and there is no open communication. Instead of placing blame on social media, we need to recognize that it is just a tool that kids can use, not the source of the problems. Focus more on the root issues: trust, communication [and] self-esteem.”

It doesn’t mean they’re bad kids or that the technology is evil, but that they’ll have a few more places to learn life lessons.

Digital communication is a skill, and there are limits and rules to learn. How we teach children to talk in real life is the same as what we need to be doing in the digital world. And, having been there myself, I know that kids have to be held accountable, especially for the mistakes that they’ll make. There’s a good chance that they’ll hurt someone’s feelings or have their own feelings hurt. They might post an inappropriate photo, or fall down a Google image rabbit-hole out of sheer, innocent curiosity. That doesn’t mean they’re bad kids or that the technology is evil, but that they’ll have a few more places to learn life lessons.

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Like any big societal change, there are benefits and risks. Your kid’s iPhone can be a warm, comforting portal into distraction and disconnection, and it can be a warm, comforting portal into knowledge and connection. Most likely it will be both, sometimes simultaneously.

So what can we do? We can stay involved, watching their behavior on the Internet just as we would at school or home. We can recognize that this technology isn’t a fad, like my parents may have thought; this is life. We can be scared of the technology, or we can be honest about its real capabilities. We can use it to teach self-control and limits. And no matter what, we must integrate it into the scope of our parenting. Digital parenting isn’t a choice; it’s a reality.

Image via Twenty20/indelibleimage

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