Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns on digital life and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
(CNN) — My mother rarely talked with me about the birds and the bees when I was growing up, and I always knew that no matter what, when I became a parent, I’d be more open with my children about sex.
With my girls in the second and third grade, I figured in the not too distant future it would be time for the “sex talk.”
But now I’m wondering if I need to have the conversation a lot sooner than I had originally thought and if the whole concept of having a “sex talk” is as outdated as the BlackBerry I still won’t give up.
“In some ways, I think the ‘tech talk’ is replacing the ‘sex talk’ because our kids are learning about sex from tech,” said Diana Graber, who teaches “cyber civics” at a middle school in Aliso Viejo, California.
Once children know how to Google, Graber says, they can easily stumble upon sexual images. “Sex” and even “porn” have also been found to be among the more popular words searched by 7-year-olds, she added, as shocking as that might sound.
“We’re giving children access to smartphones, tablets, and all sorts of digital devices so young,” said Graber, who is co-founder of CyberWise.org, a digital literacy site for parents, educators, and tweens and teens. “There is a good chance they will be exposed to inappropriate content before they’re probably ready to have that ‘sex talk’ that we used to have at 10 and 11. That’s why I think having the ‘tech talk’ first is so important.”
Graber says it’s not one talk but “a million small talks,” which begin the moment we put a connected device into our child’s hands.
“What I always tell parents is it’s not the technical stuff that they need to know. It’s the behavioral things, and it’s age old things like being nice online and being wise and not saying mean things, protecting privacy and don’t talk to strangers and all those … golden rules,” said Graber.
“Like the golden rules, they weren’t delivered to me all at once. They were delivered again and again and again throughout my lifetime.”
An unprecedented summit
Helping parents have the “tech talk” with their children was a huge motivation behind a recent summit of parents, teachers, administrators and students in New Rochelle, a community about 30 minutes outside New York City.
Christine Coleman, director of technology for the city school district of New Rochelle, said the event was designed to help parents teach children how to make good choices on social media and to really think about what they’re doing before they do it.
“I always say this to parents, ‘Would you allow your child on the subway at two in the morning?’ ” said Coleman, who holds a doctorate in computer science and education.
“No. We teach our children to make good choices. So you need to teach them to make good choices with social media.”
Coleman says one of the biggest challenges for parents is talking about a topic that they might not feel they know much about.
“I equate it to those conversations about sex,” she said. “They’re very hard to have. They’re uncomfortable to have, and … with social media, parents are uncomfortable because they’re not knowledgeable about it but if we use our children to teach us … and explain it to us, it begins a different type of conversation.”
‘I heard about this Twitter’
Coleman encourages parents to plunge right in by picking any social network (there are certainly plenty to choose from!) and starting a discussion with your child.
“Sit down with your child and say, ‘I heard about this Twitter. Don’t laugh at me. Show me on your phone. You are not going to get in trouble. I’m not looking at it. I just don’t understand what all this tweeting is?’ ” she said.
“And then you start the dialogue. ‘OK, is that what it does? … Does it ever get mean?’ ” she said. “Then end it with, ‘That’s really kind of cool. Can you set me up with a Twitter? Can you tweet me?’ Once they start tweeting you, you are involved in their world now.”
Graber said what she hears from the sixth graders she teaches is that despite what parents might think, children want them to take an interest in their online lives.
“One little girl said, ‘I wish my mom was following me on Instagram,’ or ‘I wish my mom had looked at what I posted but she just isn’t interested or she doesn’t know,’ and they’re sad,” said Graber.
“It’s a small window where they feel like that and then it closes, largely when they become teenagers, and then we’re not part of that world.”
‘This isn’t about not reading their kids’ journal’
Brian Osborne is superintendent of the New Rochelle city school district and was a key force behind his district convening its first ever digital literacy summit.
He says research shows that parents will interact with their children’s online lives, but mainly related to the expense of the smartphone, setting limits on data or online purchases.
“Parents are not having enough high quality conversations with their kids about what their online interactions actually entail,” said Osborne. “Lots of time parents have a well-intended but not fully informed respect for their children’s privacy online and what we need parents to understand is this isn’t about not reading their kids’ journal or diary out of a sense of respect and privacy. This is equivalent to knowing where your kid is.”
Graber, the digital literacy teacher, says if you are talking to a child because there’s a problem and “it’s the first conversation you’ve had, then that’s the real problem. There should have been a lot of conversations.”
Liz Gumbinner, publisher and editor-in-chief of the site Cool Mom Tech, which has been talking about the importance of the ‘tech talk’ for years, said that as soon as your kids are old enough to tap on your smartphone screen, the conversations should begin.
“Use parental controls on your devices; set limits on what they can and can’t see — and be really honest and open about it,” said Gumbinner, a mom of two girls, ages 7 and 9. “Let them know what you are doing and why. If you start talking to your kids early about tech, they’ll understand you’re making decisions in their best interests.”
The “tech talk” has to be an on-going conversation, in part, because technology itself is always changing, said Gumbinner.
“As soon as we think we’ve mastered one thing, something totally new pops up. And the really hard thing is that kids are learning about social apps and networks way before we are,” she added.
“So keep an eye on your kids’ computer time and Internet usage, know who they’re communicating with and be honest about it. It’s not spying if you talk about it openly.”
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