Students across the country are gradually returning back to their highly competitive school lives. Many parents have mixed emotions about this significant transition. Some are happy that their children are resuming their “normal” lives, whereas others are highly concerned about their children’s safety.
Bear in mind – most students haven’t been inside school buildings since March 2020. That’s over a year of not being used to social interactions or the routine of being present for full school days.
Parents can take some easy and practical steps to ensure their children don’t get the back-to-school butterflies. Some practical steps include –
• Set reasonable bedtimes the week before school resumes so that children are comfortable with the normal school routines.
• Purchase classroom supplies which children may need for the upcoming year.
• Meet the teacher virtually or in-person to discuss the year’s curriculum.
• Understand new arrival/dismissal procedures at the school.
• Pack healthy snacks for lunch.
• Make sure children eat healthy breakfasts before school.
• Watch out for symptoms of bullying or stress.
The last step is the hardest to take. As the school year moves forward, parents can no longer neglect the mental impacts of the pandemic on their children. The year-long school absence has left many teens grappling with loneliness, depression, and other mental health issues.
• Recent reports by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) state that children’s emergency department visits regarding mental health-related emergencies increased significantly during the pandemic.
• Suspected suicide attempts by children aged 12-17 also increased during the pandemic.
• During the pandemic, there was a 70% increase in hate speech among students under 18 on online platforms.
• Despite the stay-at-home orders, 37% percent of school students between the ages of 12 and 17 reported being cyberbullied. 30% say they’ve been cyberbullied more than once.
During this transition, communicating with children to see if they’re feeling bullied/stressed at school should be every parent’s key priority.
Bullying and Abuse – The Two Key Concerns
Bullying and online abuse have always been major concerns for parents. In 2021, as children return to school, they find themselves in unique and potentially vulnerable situations. The remote shift made it easier for students who were involved in cyberbullying to target newer victims.
What if this kind of online behavior is replicated in real life? Online harassment can even spark domino effects in which victims get even and ultimately become the instigators. As the numbers suggest, many schools and parents weren’t able to prevent cyberbullying inside virtual classrooms and create safe learning environments for their children.
Before kids pack their bags and head off to school, parents need to implement strategies that emphasize the importance of safety – both online and in real life. How can parents ensure that their children are returning to safe online and physical environments?
Limit Screen Time
Kids took advantage of the stay-at-home orders by drastically increasing their screen time. In a recent survey involving children aged between 13 and 18 –
• 44% of the children surveyed said their parents “don’t care” about them getting more screen time.
• During the pandemic, children between the ages of 5 and 17 received 1.5 hours of extra screen time every day, including school days (not including screen usage for school-related activities)
• Pre-pandemic, over 60% of parents stated that their kids spent 3 hours on average with screens. Post-pandemic, 70% of the parents surveyed stated that their children were getting at least 4 hours of screen time every day.
Now that school is officially back, it is recommended that parents set some kinds of limits. The ‘Goldilocks theory’ suggests that a limited amount of screen time is beneficial. The theory put forward Oxford and Cardiff academics recommends 2 hours of daily screen time for teens during the weekdays and a bit more during the weekends.
It’s a good idea for parents to get their children involved in this process of limiting screen time. Children need to realize why those limits are being set. Giving them clear reasons behind the limitations can help avoid future squabbles and arguments.
It’s always important for parents to keep an eye on how their children’s screen time is impacting other aspects of their lives. Are they spending enough time with family members? Are they getting enough sleep? The primary goal of screen time limitations should be creating healthy and balanced lifestyles for the children.
Use Parental Control Tools
There are several customizable parental control tools in the market. These tools provide parents with all the information they need swiftly, easily, and in one location, irrespective of how their children use the Internet.
• These controls help monitor children’s devices – iPads, iPhones, etc. They also help monitor text messages, app usage, and more. Tools like MMGuardian can even detect problematic conversations on children’s personal devices. For instance, if the tool detects concerning content related to categories like “abuse” or “drugs,” it notifies the parents right away.
• Parental controls enable parents to manage what their children find on the Internet. These tools can be used to block inappropriate content and websites from search results.
• Parental controls allow parents to track their children’s locations (GPS tracking). Parents must also ask their children to avoid sharing their actual locations on social networks because strangers can access that information.
• Parental controls steer children away from engaging in risky online behavior. Honing healthy online habits is key to preserving their safety in the long run.
• Parental control tools can also be used to set screen time limits. Parents can use these tools to set time limits on the forms of media their children consume and for how long.
• Many top parental control tools come with in-built age/grade-adjusted monitoring features. Children of different ages require different types of monitoring. Parents can use these in-built guides on the tools to gradually increase/decrease their level of monitoring based on their children’s ages.
• Colleges and recruiters assess the social media profiles of their potential candidates before recruiting them. If they find negative posts or comments, they may decide not to accept the applicants. Parental controls allow parents to shape their children’s online reputation and ensure whatever they’ve shared online is safe, non-toxic, and non-problematic.
The latest parental control tools like MMGuardian are customizable. Not every child needs high levels of control all the time. Parents can customize the types of content they block, screen time limits, and other parental control functions to be as hands on or off as necessary.
Create Tech Contracts with Kids
Technology contracts are great tools for family members who want to cooperate while accessing the Internet and using different devices. These informal contracts ensure that all family members are on the same page about online safety, screen time, and other important details.
Here’s a sample tech contract that parents can use for their children.
Agreements for Children
• I will always answer calls/texts from my parents as quickly as possible.
• I’ll follow my family’s and my school’s phone usage policies.
• I will avoid communicating with strangers I’ve met in person or on the Internet unless I get the approval of my parents.
• I will never take, save, or share sexual images. If I do, I can always come to my parents about it.
Agreements for Parents
• I won’t take away my child’s phone privileges if they share details about their experiences on the Internet. According to the NCPC, the main reason kids avoid speaking up about cyberbullying is the fear of losing phone privileges.
• I will always respect my child’s privacy unless the Parental Control tool says there are causes for serious concern.
These are some of the agreements that parents and children can come to before school resumes in 2021. Provided that children keep to these agreements, parents should give them the benefit of the trust.
Have Discussions About Smartphone Ownership
As life gets hectic again with early mornings, school bus rides, etc., parents must prioritize having frank discussions with their children. Talk to them about the risks of smartphone ownership, cyberbullying, and other relevant topics. They should know the signs of bullying online and in school.
More importantly, they should know how to address these issues when they feel that they are at risk. Emphasize to them that they will not lose their internet/smartphone privileges if they share such details.
Equip Them with the Right Tools
To foster healthy digital habits, parents need to set good examples, establish Internet boundaries, and provide their children with the latest digital tools and gadgets. These tools also need to be monitoring-friendly. Parents should be able to see what their children are doing on their laptops and smartphones as they make this crucial “back to school” transition in 2021. Here are some examples of cheap laptops which can be used for smartphone monitoring, location tracking, etc. –
• Lenovo IdeaPad 1 – This low-cost and lightweight laptop (price $249.99) offers long battery life, so it’s ideal for long and tiring school days. It also has in-built Ed-tech solutions that allow parental controls and monitoring.
• Dell Chromebook 3100 – This education-focused laptop costs only $249.00 and is designed to withstand the damages children typically face. It’s resistant to daily wear and tear and has 14-hour battery life. More importantly, it has parent-friendly features like screen sharing, app monitoring, etc.
• Acer Chromebook 314 – This laptop was a favorite among children during the pandemic. It comes with super-fast Intel processing, which makes it ideal for remote learning. Priced at $269.99, this Acer Chromebook makes taking notes easier for children.
Returning to in-person learning will be extremely challenging for students. But, patients can make this transition safer by following these steps and supporting their children during this time.