How I Teach my Six-Year-Old about the Algorithm

by Jessica Silberman

When my son turned six, I breathed a sigh of relief. Toddlers & newborns are cute, sure, but I found those years so taxing as a new parent. Now my six-year-old was happy, inquisitive, and energetic, plus he slept through the night and could use the toilet without my help. No more toddler tantrums and no teenage hormones yet. Time to celebrate, right? But then:

“Mommy, can I get an iPhone?”
“What’s social media?”
“Akira’s family lets her play video games all day. What’s Roblox?”
“Why does Daddy take his phone into the bathroom?”
What? Oh man. Where do I even start?

Young child standing in front of a TV screen

Kids are so innocent at this age. However, their naïveté about the world can present a dilemma for today’s parents: how can I prepare my sweet kid for the harsh realities of a technology-based culture without scaring them or destroying their innocence?

Have I scared you away yet? Come back, please. I know, I know, this stuff is terrifying. We’re all trying to raise good kids who won’t fall prey to the scary social media stuff you see in your Facebook feed. But you can’t hide your head in the sand until your kid is 13 and begging for an iPhone. Use this golden time of childhood to prepare your kids to be smart critical thinkers.

As a busy mom of two young boys, I totally get that your time is limited and precious. I’m not here to suggest long lectures or more parenting books to read; rather, you can start to engage your child’s critical thinking skills by adding in a few questions as you go about your normal day.

Practical Ways to Teach Kids about Smart Technology Use

  1. Let’s say your kids are finishing an episode of Bluey, and another episode automatically starts. You could say, “Hmm, did you decide to watch another episode? Or did Netflix decide? Why would they want you to watch another episode? Should we keep auto-play turned on or off in our house? Why?”
  2. When you’re looking at a website, tell your kids about the ads you see. Make it silly: “Come look at this! I’m reading a recipe for cookies, but this ad wants me to buy makeup? And this ad wants me to buy towels? And this ad wants me to buy a car?! What does that have to do with cookies? And how did this website know I was looking to buy a car? Can it read my mind?”
  3. When you’re out in public with your kids, comment on all the information that can relate back to screens. “Hmm, Yogurtland wants me to scan a QR code to sign up for their rewards program & get free frozen yogurt! Yum! But wait, I bet if I do, I’ll start getting lots of emails reminding me how much I love frozen yogurt. I don’t need that. I like to be the one in charge of whether I buy frozen yogurt or not.”

Keep these conversations short and casual. Challenge yourself to find more examples of screen influences in your daily life to share with your kids. By including them in your thought process, you can begin to shape their awareness of technology in a kid-friendly and safe way.