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YMCA of Austin offers internet safety course for parents

Nicole Villalpando,
Are kids today spending too much time on tablets, phones and laptops? [Metro Creative Graphics photo]

It’s a confusing digital world out there for parents. They hear talk about limiting screen time, using parent controls, cyberbullying, sexting and more.

The YMCA of Austin is offering a special program for parents on Feb. 11, which is officially Safer Internet Day. It’s open to everyone, not just members. The talk is being given twice at six YMCA locations and once at five of its after-school program elementary schools. It was designed by Google for parents of kids ages 5-12.

The talk is aimed at helping parents learn how to talk to kids about internet safety and how to model good digital behavior.

It covers five big things:

• How to help kids protect their reputation and what is safe to share and what is not.

• How to spot fake stories and teach kids to spot them, too.

• How to protect passwords and private information.

• How to teach kids to be kind on the internet and take the high road.

• How to help kids be comfortable to speak up when they see something.

Leilani Perry, the senior director of marketing and communications, says this program fits in with what the YMCA does.

“The foundation of our mission, one of the integral parts, is to protect kids,” she says. As well, it’s to provide “the materials they need to learn grow and thrive.”

She’s expecting about 300 people to attend throughout the day.

We’ve done many stories on internet safety and kids. Five years ago, the trend was for parents to fill their children’s devices with parental controls. Now, parents and experts have figured out that kids are good at hacking these systems, so it’s better to give them the tools to be internet safe.

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Here are some of the best tips we’ve received from experts:

Discuss the appropriate use of screens with your children. Devorah Heitner, founder of the website Raising Digital Natives and the book “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” offers this list of concerns to talk about with children:

• Do they know who they are playing online games with? If not, parents might want to set up a private server in games such as Mindcraft to invite only people they know in real life.

• Are they involved in group texts? Remind them that everyone on those texts sees them and gossip can be painful.

• Are friends sharing texts about friends with other friends? Remind them not to engage in that behavior and call it out when they see it.

• Are they looking for validation based on the number of likes and comments on posts?

• What will happen if they lose their phone, tablet or computer? How will they reimburse you?

• Do they understand that digital money is real money? Do you have a plan for what permissions they will need and how they can pay for online purchases?

• What behavior will cause them to lose their phone, tablet or computer?

Make sure they know it’s OK not to respond to texts and social media posts right away. They don’t need to be connected all the time.

Invite them to ask you when they have a question. Google is wonderful, but it might provide information that they don’t understand or could be overwhelming.

Talk through different situations. What will you do if you see something inappropriate on your phone? What will you do if you feel a friend is not behaving well online? What will you do if a friend doesn’t understand that you can’t respond right away?

Be a role model for phone and computer use. Austin psychologists Mike Brooks and Jon Lasser wrote “Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World.” Kids often complain as much about their parents’ use of technology as parents complain about their kids’. Think of it like healthy eating, Brooks says. We can’t force them to eat healthier foods, but if we model eating healthfully, they might do it.

Set limits. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ media use policy recommends these guidelines:

Children younger than 18 months: Avoid the use of any screen media except video chatting (with grandparents, for example).

Children 18 to 24 months old: Introduce high-quality programs or apps, but do it with your children to create a dialogue about what they are seeing and how it relates to the world around them.

Children 2 to 5 years old: Limit screen time to one hour a day of high-quality programs that you view with your children.

Children 6 years old and older: Place consistent limits on time spent using media and the types of media, and make sure that the use of media does not take the place of sleeping, exercise or other healthy behaviors.

Take screens out of the bedroom. This includes cellphones, computers, TVs and video games. Kids are chronically sleep-deprived, which leads to poor behavior and can be the reason kids are getting mental health diagnoses.

Missing just 30 to 60 minutes of sleep affects your moods and your ability to form healthy relationships, says Dr. Elizabeth Knapp, co-chief of pediatrics at Austin Regional Clinic.

Put screens in public places and limit how they are used. Even though they might still be sneaking and texting to their friends “PWOMS” (Parent Watching Over My Shoulder) or some other acronym, they are less likely to be doing something unsafe if you could be walking by.

Remind them that what they post online stays forever. Those middle school photos will follow them to their first job interview. Remind them of the permanent legal consequences of sending or receiving photos that could be considered child pornography. Kids can be charged with distributing child pornography even if they didn’t take the photo. And if a parent shows it to another parent or a teacher or principal, he or she has just distributed child pornography, says Bob Lotter, creator of My Mobile Watchdog, a monitoring app. Parents may show it only to law enforcement, Lotter says.

Make sure kids engage with real people they know. Their online friends can quickly become more important than the friends they see in person.

Determine if they are really ready to have a cellphone. Brooke Shannon is the executive director and founder of Wait Until 8th, an Austin-based organization that encourages parents and kids to take a pledge to wait until eighth grade before giving kids their first smartphone. It now has 22,000 people from around the country who have taken the pledge.

Both Shannon and Knapp say when to give your child a cellphone is not about a certain age. Knowing whether your child is ready for a cellphone and whether you are ready to give it to them is about the kind of conversations you have had as a family.

You have to be ready to talk about the dangers that lurk there, Knapp says. Parents have to be ready to set up parameters about what kids need to click off of if they see it.

“If you see a naked body, is that OK? If you see violence against other people, is that OK?” Knapp says parents should ask their children.

What she’s noticed is that parents are giving kids phones before they’ve had a talk about sex. And if they haven’t talked about sex, they also haven’t talked about porn or many other things kids can access through their phones.

Parents also need to think about whether their child is responsible enough for a phone, which can be a $500 to $1,000 item. If your kid is having trouble keeping up with their school binders, how will they do with a phone?

Kids need those rules that parents set. If a kid isn’t good at following the rules, that can also be a sign that that kid isn’t ready to be given a phone yet.

Common Sense Media has these questions parents should ask their kids:

• Why do you want a cellphone?

• Do you understand the rules of your family and of school for cellphone use?

• What are some concerns you think your family and teacher have about your phone?

• What are five places where it’s not OK to use your phone?

Build up the parent-child relationship to prevent conflict and dangerous online use. Brooks and Lasser’s No. 1 recommendation is for parents to spend more time with their kids without technology.

“The more time we spend with kids in that capacity, it feeds that part of their soul that is going to be happy, healthy, and they will have that in them that it’s valuable to be in relationship,” Brooks says.

Have family meals at home and make that a top priority. “You have to communicate that our time together as a parent and child is more important than anything else,” says family physician, psychologist and author Leonard Sax, who wrote “The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups.”

Register for these Feb. 11 workshops at

9 a.m. North Austin YMCA

4 p.m. North Austin YMCA

11 a.m. Northwest Family YMCA

5 p.m. Northwest Family YMCA

10:30 a.m. Southwest family YMCA

6 p.m. Southwest Family YMCA

10:30 a.m. Town Lake YMCA

4:30 p.m. Town Lake YMCA

10:30 a.m. East Communities YMCA

7:45 p.m. East Communities YMCA (in Spanish)

11:30 a.m. Hays Communities YMCA

6:30 p.m. Hays Communities YMCA

5 p.m. Carpenter Hill Elementary

5 p.m. Baranoff Elementary

5 p.m. Shadowglen Elementary

5 p.m. Laurel Mountain Elementary

5 p.m. Ridgetop Elementary

Be Internet Awesome with YMCA of Austin