THE GUARDIAN: How to manage your child’s tech usage and online activity

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Different age groups need different controls on their online activity. Photograph: Ian Ross Pettigrew/Getty Images/Flickr RF/The Guardian

It’s important to strike the right balance between being considerate and in control when it comes to managing children’s time with tech. Here are five tips on how to achieve it

It’s natural for parents to worry about what their children do online and with technology in general. But the mistake many make is to think that managing their behaviour in the digital world is different from how they would supervise it anywhere else.

“It isn’t different,” says Ken Corish of the UK Safer Internet Centre, stressing that the internet should be treated in the same way as the real world when it comes to child safety. “All of the conversations that need to happen are exactly the same and they need to start early.”

E-safety consultant Karl Hopwood urges parents to take an active interest in what their children do with technology and not simply leave them to it.

“Parents wouldn’t think twice about this in the other aspects of their children’s lives but when it’s online they seem to have a false sense of security. I’ve had parents say things like: ‘I know he spends a lot of time online in his room but at least I know where he is. It’s better than him being outside and me having no idea what he is up to.’

“So good communication is vital. Things are going to go wrong when children go online and parents need to be there to support them.”

With that in mind, here are a few steps you can take to look out for your children online:

Look for the indicators

Is it hard to get your child’s attention? Are they withdrawn or moody or more aggressive? Are they lethargic and reluctant to leave the house or join in family things? Are they saying wherever you go: “I’m not going there unless it has internet”?

If so, think about limiting screen time at home to certain times of the day or week and stick to it.

It’s also important to have a conversation with your child. Ask them about sites they like to visit and get them to show you what they are. Ask if they know how to stay safe online and whether they know when it’s OK to share things with others – or not.

This way, they’re engaging with you, not just immersed in their own solitary world.

Laying down the law

If you have found the tipping point where your child is spending a considerable amount of time on the device, then you can always remind them who pays for it, and use that as a basis to maintain some reasonable control over their access.

Samsung offers a non-contentious solution: the Kids Mode app, which is available on their popular tablets such as the Galaxy Tab A. This free app lets you manage the content kids can access and set daily time limits, so you can govern usage according to parameters you have set.

You may worry about being labelled “the worst parent in the world” for the first few days, but the further back you draw the line, the more wriggle room you have created for yourself to reward positive behaviour.

Model good tech behaviour

The habit of over-engaging with technology often starts with parents themselves. If you don’t want your child picking up the tablet as soon as they arrive home from school, or online gaming when they’re in bed, don’t do it yourself.

You can use apps such as Dinner Time to monitor children’s time online. Parents download the free app to their own phone then sync it with their kids’ devices so the they can set time limits on their children’s use.

If you have a set of rules, make sure everyone else in the family follows them, too.

Watch what the kids watch

The way you manage access for an under-five will likely be quite different to how you control a teenager’s use of tech. Make sure you are physically in control of any device an under-five can access and be aware of the content you’re leaving them to interact with. If you leave them alone to watch Peppa Pig on YouTube, they could easily tap on the related videos sidebar and end up viewing something less appropriate.

If you have a YouTube account, you can set the safety settings to filter out any material inappropriate for under-18s. Alternatively, think about using YouTube’s Kids app, which offers only age-appropriate content for children.

Manage access for all ages

Consider setting up personal accounts on a family device for older children and putting appropriate restrictions in place. The Samsung Galaxy Tab A, for example, offers a multi-user mode that enables the tablet settings to be customised for each individual user. It’s a fallacy to think that most kids and teenagers are so tech-savvy that they can easily circumvent the parental settings, which usually requires a four-digit pin – not an easy thing to crack unless your child is a trainee cryptographer.

If you notice they have managed to breach the barrier, however, there’s your opportunity to have the conversation about why they’ve done it.