Welcome to , an ongoing series at Mashable that looks at how to take care of – and deal with – the kids in your life. Because Dr. Spock is nice and all, but it’s 2018 and we have the entire internet to contend with.
When Amber Petersen noticed her seven-year-old daughter was spending progressively more time playing games online, she reached back into the 1800s for a little instruction.
On a summer day this year, as Brooklyn explored a virtual playground on Roblox, the popular gaming platform designed for young kids, Petersen read out loud from Meet Kirsten, a kids’ chapter book based in the 1850s that’s part of doll-maker American Girl’s historical fiction series.
“I thought it would encourage her to open her mind since she had been so immersed in her video games prior to that,” Petersen said. “I had just stopped to do a comprehension check with her at a part when Kirsten got lost from her family. We were talking about how different it was back then not to have phones or iPads or internet to get help or locate people.”
Moments later, after talking about the realities of 19th century America, Brooklyn handed her mom her iPad, which displayed a terrifying scene straight out of the 21st century. There, in the fantasy world she’d been exploring on Roblox, other virtual characters were sexually assaulting the young girl’s avatar, which Brooklyn had designed to look like herself.
‘What do we mean by real?’
While online bad behavior is rampant, most young kids don’t witness the violent gang rape of their own character during their daily gaming sessions. The Petersens’ experience is certainly an exception.
Still, the online world is increasingly a focus for young kids, especially as tablets, smartphones, games and other online interactions take up more of their time. A found that even the youngest kids, ages 8 and under, spend more than two hours a day with screen media – and more of that time is happening on mobile devices that can seem tethered to their bodies.
And when kids, so engrossed in the worlds they are creating on Minecraft or the games they’re playing in Roblox, only ever want to talk about their online exploits, parents question if they can even differentiate between events that are happening in the real world and the virtual ones that they are building.
But experts on child development and technology say that’s not the right question to ask.
“If a child has this world that he or she engages in online and it feels like a valid, meaningful part of her life … what do we mean by real?” said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at University of Texas.
Discerning differences starts early
Research, including Woolley’s own, shows that kids can begin to distinguish between reality and fantasy between the ages of 3 and 5. By the time they reach age 12, they can tell the difference as well as adults.
The internet, of course, isn’t the only place kids encounter non-realities in their lives. Some play daily with imaginary friends. Or, they binge read Harry Potter. Or, they act out every line from Star Wars or Moana.
It also isn’t the first new technology to arouse suspicion.
“Everybody thought television was going to ruin children’s brains,” Woolley said. “But kids learn to differentiate TV from reality. Their parents can help them a little bit by talking with them about it, but they figure it out pretty quickly. So, then the question is, is that also true with the internet? Is the internet unique in some way? Is it a new challenge that parents need to help kids figure out?”
So far, there isn’t much research that delves into the pros and cons of the imaginary worlds that young kids create online. It’s only recently that the youngest kids have become so involved in it.
But for parents, said Woolley, what’s still important is teaching kids to have a healthy dose of skepticism, especially in an online world where images, videos and information often are manipulated.
“I don’t know that the internet is posing any kind of new problem,” she said. “But I do think that the internet is providing multiple exposures and more opportunities to get confused just because of the nature of the way information is presented.”
Controls still required
Of course, none of this means kids should get unlimited screen time without the proper parental controls, experts say. A offered warning signs of screen addiction – for kids ages 4 to 11. When screen time interferes with daily activities or is the only activity that brings a child joy are among the red flags.
A strong psychological identification with their online avatar, when paired with other issues, could be another.
, published in the journal Games and Culture, looked at South Korean middle school students’ internal identification with the avatars they created for themselves online. When players lacked social skills and suffered from low self-esteem, they more often identified strongly with their virtual character and had higher rates of depression and gaming addiction.
“They might feel like they prefer their online self with their real self and want to spend more time there,” said Megan Golonka, a developmental psychologist at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy.
But, for most, Golonka said there’s no problem with kids building an avatar they love or identify with. “That’s part of the fun and excitement – especially for little kids,” she said.
Real life discussions
For Petersen, this summer’s experience on Roblox provided a lot of opportunities to talk about real life topics – like rape and sexual assault – with her seven-year-old, conversations she wasn’t prepared to have.
Soon after she posted about her experience on Facebook and her story went viral, Roblox responded, banning the offender from the site and putting other safeguards in place to reduce the possibility of it happening again, according to a company statement.
These days, Petersen is more diligent about regularly checking security settings and talking with her daughter during and after each gaming session.
“I have made it very clear to her that she will not be in trouble for sharing anything with me that she may think I wouldn’t approve of,” Petersen said. “Instead, I like to find teaching moments in our dialogue and there have been many times that we have gotten into valuable, in-depth discussions that boost self-esteem and encourage her to be a good digital citizen.”
Tips to help kids navigate
Supervising kids and using those teaching moments are two ways parents can help young gamers, experts say. There are other ways to help kids navigate their online worlds as well.
1. Set limits
Establish a routine for reconnecting with reality after a gaming session, Golonka recommends. Once kids have unplugged, have them take a walk, eat a healthy snack or read a book before they can start regaling you with stories of their online wins.
“That can really help with that separation with that’s my online world and now I’m in the real world,” she said.
2. Encourage IRL interactions
Make sure all their social time isn’t just happening online. If they shy away from real-life interactions, said Devorah Heitner, founder of Raising Digital Natives and author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, ask them why.
“What would help them focus on their real life?” she said. “And what’s awkward and what’s difficult for them?”
3. Model good behavior
Are you often lost in your own online world as your kids compete for your attention? Now’s the time to think about your online habits – and how they might look to your children.
“Are they [parents] engaging with their kids?” said Nadia Charguia, a child psychiatrist at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine. “Or, are they also glued to their phone or another screen? Think about what they’re doing.”
4. Treat cyberbullying like real-life bullying
If it was playground bullying, you’d comfort your child and contact those in charge, Golonka said. With cyberbullying, your response should be the same.
“Explain to them that unfortunately things happen sometimes,” Golonka said. “It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with them or they did anything wrong. Just reassure them that they are loved and cared for and that you will be there to protect them.”
5. Teach them to be good digital citizens
Finally, remind kids that what they do online is a representation of themselves and their character, said social media coach Laura Tierney, founder of The Social Institute, which works with kids as young as third grade.
“We can’t say there is a divide. That there’s the digital you and the real life you,” Tierney said. “They are one in the same. … We need to teach students that this is part of them and, frankly, we don’t need to teach them that. They already believe it.”
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