Dear Parents: Treat the Internet Like a Fork

We talk all the time about the terrible things the Internet might do to our kids. But what do we want it to do? What’s the Internet for?

Ring bear

One of the harshest disappointments of my childhood was the moment my parents showed me my ring bearer suit, which came without the giant bear mask I’d been imagining for weeks.

Shut up. It felt harsh at the time.

The point is that defining key terms right at the beginning helps to avoid misunderstandings. So let’s forget the Internet for a paragraph and start here: what is technology?

Amplifier

The most useful definition is a broad one: technology exists to help us do things we need or want to do.

Building a house? Hammer.
Headed to Belgium? Airplane.
Want to relax? Knitting tips on Pinterest.

Technology amplifies our actions. It’s an ever-expanding toolbox. It sets us apart from the chimps.

Your job

The Internet is just another tool, like a fork or a four-door sedan. A fork can help your kid gobble veggies or blind your cat. A car can help your kid get to the library or mow down every mailbox in your zip code. As a tool, the Internet has even greater potential on both ends of the spectrum.

It’s not rational for parents to fear forks, so long as we teach our kids to use them to spear food, not as headrests or electric socket cleaners.

By the same token, when the time comes for your kid to drive, it’ll be your job to teach them to use a car as a means of personal transportation, not as a cozy spot to catch up on texts and tweets.

The solution is not to lock your kid out of the Internet. If you don’t teach them to drive, some overconfident classmate will fill in for you, and they’ll convince your pride and joy that if you’re wearing a seatbelt, you’re not really living.

Those who do, teach

When used correctly, the Internet brings out the best in us. But how do you teach your kid to use it that way? Just think forks and four-way stops.

You sit down for meals together and display proper fork technique. You watch your kid struggle, correct their form, and even guide their hand now and then.

You also exemplify careful, attentive, consistent driving. Then, when the time comes, you trust your kid with the driver’s seat. You teach them to understand the machine, respect other drivers, and to actually check their blind spot.

By the same principles, develop and display your own healthy Internet practices. Get online with a purpose, accomplish that purpose, and log off. Let your kid see you respect and enjoy the technology. Then, when they show interest, teach them to do the same.

Once you verify that a site or app they like isn’t pure poison, stick around to figure out why they like it so much. Identify what they value, and help them find more of it online.

Space online

Then, when they’re ready, give them a grownup fork, keys to the car, and a bit of space online. It’s scary at first, but so is spaghetti and parallel parking.