Many families struggle with conflicts over "screentime." If you've ever wished a "Super Nanny for Screens" would come to your home, these podcast episodes could be the next best thing. I recent got invited to meet with a family who was struggling with their kids' intense devotion to their digital devices for an NPR podcast.
Here is a a guest post from Jacq Fisch about helping her son Jacob through his fears of a what turned out to be a hyped up Internet hoax. We all want to protect kids, but we should be mindful that we may be scaring them more than we are helping if we freak out about every “dangerous viral trend” before investigating.
Schools mean well when they inform students and parents about these things, but it is important to do your own homework about issues and find trusted sources of information before jumping on the fear bandwagon.
Jacq did an amazing job mentoring her son by helping him find a mindfulness technique to calm the panic, and by encouraging him to find a more accurate source of information.
Jacq and Jacob’s story:
Kids and fear seem to go together like sunbutter and organic apple butter. Well, it does for my kids anyway. The dark, spiders, tornadoes (we live in the midwest), monsters in the closet, haunted houses, and a room full of strangers are all scary things. Even today, we might wake up in the middle of the night to find one of our two kids having snuck into our bed after a scary dream.
And as a parent, we have our fair share of fears too when it comes to kids and their digital worlds. Will they be on the receiving end of bullying online? Will they accidentally open an inappropriate picture online? Or will they find a picture of their friends all hanging out and feel excluded?
We have no shortage of fears, and a recent one had our 10-year-old Jacob in our bed two nights in a row: the “momo challenge.”
I had heard about it from some other parents and hadn’t heard the kids mention it so I brushed it off and didn’t bother to research it. Until we got a robocall from the school and an official communication about it. The kids came home full of fear that day telling us all about it.
When and What I Heard About It
When I heard about the momo challenge I was super scared because I didn’t know it was fake. When I was playing Fortnite after school and my sister (7) came up to me and said that someone in her class told the teacher about the momo challenge and to she told the whole class to talk with their parents about momo.
I was scared to death even though I didn’t see the picture because of what she told me about it. I wasn’t doing well at not being scared at that moment because I couldn’t concentrate on my sister or my game of Fortnite.
When I was going to hockey, I was scared to put my legs on the floor in the car because I was afraid momo would be there. When I was at hockey in the locker room, momo was the thing that everyone was talking about.
It was my one friend that made me sleep in my parent’s bed. He said, “I heard that she tells kids to suicide and gets them to friend momo on Whatsapp and momo will call you and give you instructions on how to suicide.”
During The Scare
I didn’t sleep well of course because of the momo challenge because I Googled momo challenge, and saw a scary picture. I got so scared that when I saw it, I slammed my computer screen down and thought I broke the computer. When I turned off the computer, I tried turning it back on again and not looking at the face and closing that chrome page. So I fell asleep late because I thought that now that I heard about and people all said scary things like momo makes videos telling kids to suicide and if they don’t momo will kill them and harm their parents.
I was worried I was going to suicide because of hearing about it.
Stopping the Scare With Meditation
After hockey practice me and my mom talked about momo and she told me to relax because I was so scared. When my mom told me to calm down she asked me if I wanted to listen to a meditation audio. After I did that, I felt a little better. It helped me change the subject. When I was at home I showed my mom a picture and she read an article about how it was all just hoax and it was someone trying to get their post retweeted over and over again.
Finally Getting Over It
When I was on my way to our consolation hockey game, I was on my phone the whole time in the car reading about momo. I read a really long article about how it is fake and that the picture is just of a Japanese puppet. When I read this, I kept reading it out loud to my mom about what it said. When I was done reading the article, I was fine because it didn’t bother me anymore. I was fine now that I read about it all being just a big hoax. I was actually happy that I found out because like my parents said that I like to seek knowledge out and find out if it is or isn’t real.
The Annoying Part
After reading the article, I was fine and then the annoying part came. A lot of people had just heard about it and wouldn’t stop talking about it. I had to keep repeating myself over and over about how momo is fake and it is just someone trying to get their post retweeted. I was happy I was doing everyone a big favor by spreading the word about it. On the bus, I had to tell everyone it was fake over and over again because they weren’t listening to me. They still thought that it was real and that if they watched it they would be told to suicide.
As a parent, different things seem to work for different situations. And what works for one scary dream doesn’t work for another. And when it comes to finding scary things online, I know it might happen from time to time.
In this particular case, teaching Jacob how to do research online, showing him how to consider the information source, and the constant reminder that questioning everything is always a good idea, plus a little patience helped calm this situation.
In the moment, however, when fear is taking over their little bodies, all I can do as a parent is help them move past the physical discomfort. During that car ride home that Jacob described, he told me he felt dizzy and like he was going to throw up. This was when I suggested a meditation. I have a few audios ready to go on my phone, so I quickly pulled one up and played it for him. He calmed right away when he started focusing on his breathing.
A grounding meditation is just one tool in my parenting toolbox to help calm the kids when they’re scared.
When the kids are scared, here are some of our go-to calm-down tools:
- Ask questions.
When we ask open-ended questions such as, “tell me more about this,” they feel heard because they have the floor to share what’s going on in whatever way feels good to them.
- Assure them we understand.
The phrase, “Thank you for telling me this, I understand,” is pure gold. It’s another way to help our kids feel understood.
- Don’t freak out.
Freaking out is never a good idea. Especially if kids are already scared. Even if I have to pause and take a breath before responding to a mini-freak out session, it serves everyone when I can meet their panic with calm. Even if I am freaking out on the inside just a little.
Kids are going to have fears pop up now and again. Even when screen time limits, boundaries, and rules fail, at the end of the day, I am their parent and I have the chance to make the world just a little bit less of a scary place for them. And more than just easing a fear, I can teach them the tools to handle fears themselves.
–Jacq Fish, author of Unfussy Mom
PS from Devorah: So helpful to hear Jacq and Jacob’s story. And isn’t Jacob an awesome writer? Obviously, there are times when things are really scary and we can talk to kids about inappropriate content they may find and how to respond. Also, there is a good opportunity to remind kids of free will, no one on a computer can “make” you do anything. If someone tries to compel you, turn it off, get a grownup and remember that YOU are in charge of you!
What if the smartphone isn't the problem? What if our kids' increased anxiety comes from another source entirely? Or what if we as parents are projecting our anxiety onto them instead? Much of the hype around kids, technology, and anxiety needs further investigation. Let's take a deeper look.
“What are they doing on YouTube anyway?”
Your kid has been staring at his tablet for hours. When you ask what he’s watching, he answers “YouTube.” When he first logged on, you saw him watching another kid unwrapping some brand new toys on YouTube. Thirty minutes later, you hear your child laughing hysterically. You wonder, “What is he watching now? Is that toy video really that hilarious?” Just like we find ourselves browsing the internet or working away only to realize we have 14 open browser tabs, the same happens to our kids.
How can I deal with YouTube? Or what are the parental controls for YouTube? Or…How can I get my kid off YouTube? These are among the most common questions I hear from parents when I speak in communities. You check back in after an hour, and wonder, “Why are you watching that?” Even YouTube Kids has been criticized for inappropriate content such as recommending disturbing videos and pornography. Ugh! Recently the Google-owned app has released parental controls that let parents select trusted channels and topics for your child to access such as “learning,” or, “education.” Parents can even set a maximum number of channels to help customize a kid’s YouTube experience and keep them from falling down a rabbit hole of video content. But before you start setting up controls, you want to understand what your child is interested in some of the challenges they might run into. And if they want to start their own channel…that is another big conversation (or two or three.)
You might be wondering what they’re watching on there. Here are a few popular channels and YouTubers your kids might be into:
(sourced from my local parent community)
- Dude Perfect
- Khan Academy
- Britain’s Got Talent
- The Miles Chronicles (LGBTQ+)
- LadyLike (makeup, fashion, and product tests)
- Troom Troom (pranks and crafts)
- Liza Koshy
- Roblox videos
- Game Theory
- James Charles (makeup)
- FUNnel Vision
- Casey Neistat
- David Dobrik
- Cody Ko
Parents have a love-hate relationship with YouTube
YouTube is a fantastic learning tool. Whether you’re looking up how to tie a Windsor knot, how to remove ants, or how to make the perfect souffle, you can find a video for just about anything you’re seeking to learn. One mom, Charlotte says, “I Love YouTube! It’s the new Encyclopedia Britannica! Unfortunately, you can also see disturbing things as well, so I have to monitor and prepare the kids not to believe everything they see and hear. I’d definitely let them create a YouTube channel if it was for something good.”
On the other hand, we’ve all had experiences with how disturbing some of the content can be. Some sick people are clearly attempting to get young children to view pornography by using characters that kids would like, with content that is not for kids. Kate says, “I had to ban YouTube for my 4-year-old daughter right about the time I found the ‘Spiderman Effs Elsa’ and ‘Spiderman Pees on Elsa’ channels playing while she looked on, confused. Sick people out there and it’s not worth having YouTube if there is even a chance for her to come across the Elsa rape scene again. I was SICKENED.”
Other parents have mentioned Pokemon and other anime channels that appear to be OK but when they dig further, parents describe it as ”basically softcore cartoon porn.” Parents are worried, because one wrong click and your child has seen things they can’t unsee.
Another parent, Nina, didn’t like all the materialism for young kids. She said, “My daughter is way too into toy videos. She’s only four and has been begging to make toy videos and put them on YouTube. Part of me is considering letting her do it, but I also don’t want her getting deeper into that nonsense. For older kids, I think having a YouTube channel is fine, as long as the parent helps manage it.”
A few parents have mentioned new behaviors elicited from their kids that they didn’t particularly like that seem to be inspired by YouTube. For instance, Celi said, “My almost 7-year-old was loving YouTube Kids way too much! She was mostly watching commercials about Shopkins, and then Surprise Dolls became an obsession. She talked about how rare some were and actually stole one from another kid at school! That was all it took for us to ban YouTube kids in our home. Maybe when she’s older and better able to manage, but for now I’d rather have her doing more and watching less.”
Conversation starters with kids
As your kids are getting started with finding videos they enjoy on YouTube, set up some ground-rules early on. You might want to consider allowing just a few channels to start. These will be channels that you’ve personally watched together with your kids to make sure they’re age-appropriate and suitable for your child. If your child has been watching YouTube for a while and you’re just getting the conversation started now, here are some ideas to get your kids to engage in a valuable discussion:
- Tell me about what you’re watching on there. What do you like about it?
- Why do you think he/she likes making these videos?
- Have you seen any videos you didn’t like? What didn’t you like about them?
Remember to ask questions in a non-confrontational way and to make sure you’re not ready to judge them to help create a safe space for your children to share.
More YouTube Parent Strategies
One mom said her 10-year-old son mostly watches video gamers and subscribes to channels under her account, so she sees exactly what he’s doing because the updates wind up in her email. Other parents pre select a bunch of youtube videos with or their kids or on their own and then give their kids the choice to just watch those. Some parents make playlists with prescreened, approved videos. You may want to check out these YouTube reviews by Common Sense. Some parents only let kids explore on YouTube when they can be with them, or at least in the same room…and others may even restrict YouTube so that kids can only use it with adult supervision. If you choose to do this, it is no substitute for mentoring. Look for interesting channels and individuals to follow with your kids. Talk with them about the “suggestions” they see and why they should pursue a more intentional set of choices, and not let an algorithm choose their next view.
Whether or note you choose parental controls, you’ll still need to talk with your child about how to use YouTube appropriately on other devices and in other settings, and offer guidance on navigating the waters of YouTube when you are together!
You found your child watching inappropriate content—now what?
This rule applies to more than just offensive YouTube content and is an excellent rule for all of the tricky parenting moments—don’t freak out. Freaking out is always a terrible idea, and in the case of kids accidentally (or even intentionally) landing on naughty or just plain weird YouTube content that’s not appropriate could lead to confusion down the road. Approach these situations with curiosity and ask how they ended up watching the video. Talk about how the video(s) made them feel, and if something isn’t appropriate for their eyes, calmly explain why and let them know how to handle it if they land on it again.
Use the opportunity to listen and learn from your child It may have been recommended as a video to watch next, and naturally, they clicked on it and started watching, maybe even unsure what they were looking at. It’s in these parenting moments, you might identify areas where you want to rethink where they watch videos (or with whom.) You may also want to start viewing content with them and discuss what they like and what they don’t about the channels they’re watching.
YouTube can be both inspiring and educational for all of us. It can teach us how to make a new recipe, or how to build a treehouse. Approaching it with curiosity and a healthy dose of mindful attention can help your children learn to do the same.
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