What happens when one of your kid's friends is doing something inappropriate with social media or the Internet? Having that "uncomfortable conversation" may not be fun, but looking out for each others' kids is good for all of us as parents.
Like it or not, your kids’ world is a Digital World. But just because they can operate the devices doesn’t mean that they are prepared for success. Let’s remove some of the misconceptions about kids and technology, and make a commitment to mentorship around the issues of digital citizenship.
Mayim Bialik is a TV star (The Big Bang Theory) and neuroscientist who also writes a popular blog on raising kids today's world. I was delighted and surprised when I found out that she read my new book, Screenwise – and wrote a review on Kveller.com!
Is the Pokémon Go craze a good thing for your kids or not? Here’s how to co-create solutions with your digital native, rather than just feeling pressured to jump on the next trend.
Kids deal with small conflicts every day - it’s part of growing up. But for today’s “always-on” digital natives, there are additional layers of complexity. Constant connectivity complicates their social sphere. Here’s how you can be a good mentor and teach conflict resolution to your own digital natives.
Distraction is a real issue with kids and tech. Having a plan can help mitigate the shortcomings of tech and help your kids find balance.
When I speak at schools in communities across the country, parents approach me with their concerns. In every community, technology as a distraction comes up as one of the most frequent—and urgent—issues that worry parents.
Recent data from iKeepSafe suggest that parents are right to be concerned, with 28% of teens reporting that their digital engagement interferes with schoolwork. Even outside the classroom, 44% of tweens admit that their digital pursuits take them away from other things they are doing, and 17% of tweens say that their digital engagement causes problems in relationships with friends and family.
Adults are hardly exempt from the distraction issue (myself included!), with 14% of adults acknowledging that they need to spend less time with technology. If this issue is challenging for adults, imagine how difficult it is for kids. Teens and tweens are in need of mentorship to help them navigate these challenges. Let’s face it, most of us aren’t ready to unplug completely as our digital engagement bring about significant advantages. We shouldn’t expect that our kids are, either. Let’s look at the issue more deeply.
This data is helpful as it breaks down some different scenarios for distraction/disruption. One of the biggest reveals, later in the study is how much teens and tweens online engagement can interfere with sleep. The is a huge issue, and can masquerade as distraction, as focus is difficult to achieve when you are exhausted!
Two Tech Attitudes – Which One Are You?
As I describe in Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, the research on kids and distraction falls into two broad categories: The Optimists and The Cautionists.
- The Optimists. Techno-optimists believe our minds are getting stronger because of digital technology. Freed from having to remember a ton of facts, we can create and link ideas together in new and interesting ways. Cathy Davidson argues that “monotasking” is not compatible with how our brains work.
- The Cautionists. Techno-cautionists believe we are all in “The Shallows,” skimming and scanning and not truly reading. Indeed, before we all jump into eTextbooks, we should look at some of the evidence that format matters.
While there’s more research to be done, there are studies like this one that suggest that we retain information better when it’s in paper form rather than digital form. One question to keep in mind: Is this true only for people who already have a history of learning from paper texts? Or are there properties of printed text that affect memory—such as the physicality of turning a page and knowing where you are in a book? And how is this different for digital natives—our kids?
Annie Murphy Paul says (in research summarized in Slate in 2013) that groups of college students doing important homework checked their phones quite frequently. We seek out breaks in our work and the mental work of toggling back and forth is where we risk sacrificing our best abilities. It seems like only a few seconds of interruption, but it takes us a while to re-engage and get back into the flow. This “dislocation” is a problem as we may get fatigued from the effort of repeatedly bringing ours minds back to a task. Thus, one hour of homework can take 2-3 hours, yet be more exhausting—but the effort is not from the work itself, but the work of constantly re-focusing.
What this may suggest, is that for major work (a longer paper or a serious assignment), your teen or tween student should print out her drafts and proofread them on paper. Editing on paper may be better for many of us. Paperless sounds great and is very ecologically desirable, but many of us need to proofread our most important work on paper. Let’s dive a little deeper into parents’ biggest concern about distraction—homework.
Homework and Distraction
Does this scene sound familiar? Your child goes up to her room to complete her homework—perhaps on a school-issued iPad. Three hours later, she isn’t finished. Was she perhaps iChatting or Facetiming with her friends? Perhaps it started out about the homework, but then she got pulled into other topics. Was she listening to music and “had” to make a new playlist? Did she get distracted by someone’s post on Instagram and feel she was missing out on a social “hangout” that very instant? Or was she just “old school” daydreaming and not focusing?
Most kids in elementary and middle school shouldn’t have 3-4 hours of homework. The homework epidemic is a topic for a whole different book, but do check with your child’s teacher for guidelines about how much time they expect homework to take. If it’s taking way too long (or not long enough), it could be an indicator that there’s an underlying problem.
Many kids need to unplug for homework. Again, check with your child’s teacher. Not all homework requires online time, so offline time (or even turning off your home wifi) during “home study hall” could be an amazingly effective tactic. Imagine the conversations with your spouse and the dishes that would get done if you couldn’t check your email right after dinner!
What You Can Do to Help Your Kids
If you observe that your children are struggling with distractions when completing homework on a tablet or laptop, collaborate with your kids to figure out how to tame the distractions. Here are some strategies—find which ones are best for your family:
- No double screening. Many students I’ve spoken to say their parents have rules about no double screening, but it can be a huge help. Though it requires some will power, put the other device away. Even if homework requires a tablet, for instance—stick to one device so you can focus.
- Use tech to fight tech. Some kids will appreciate and enjoy “distraction blockers” like Leechblock and Freedom. While this won’t solve the problem on its own, it can help! As I type this post, I am blocking social media myself. My friends’ babies are cute and breaking news is exciting, but I need to focus.
- Turn off the tech. Many parents find that simply turning off their home wifi really helps kids get their work done. Again, the Internet and connectivity is only a small part of most kids’ homework. Sure, they may be expected to be in an interactive space with classmates to post a comment, but that is likely only a tiny portion of their homework. Even a blog post as an assignment can be written offline and posted later.
- Start unplugged to get plugged. If your kids say, “but I need to (collaborate with my friends, be online, use the Internet, etc.) to do my homework,” have them complete all the non-Internet homework first and then have them do the plugged-in homework. Impose a time limit or be present yourself so that they know that they need to finish.
- Show your struggles too. Lastly, be open with your kids about your own experiences of distraction. Tell them your struggles—how it can be a drain on your productivity at work or that it feels tough to keep up with sometimes. Knowing this can be very helpful to them and make them feel like their own struggles are not “abnormal.”
Hope that you find these suggestions to be helpful. Our devices add a lot to our lives—both positive and negative. Digital Citizenship is about learning how to harness the positives and minimize the negatives. Distraction is not just about the devices, but how we use them. If you can get at the root cause of distraction, you will be in a much better position to mentor your kids on to fight through it and get their homework done!
Please share your most positive experiences with navigating distraction and any challenges in the comments! Do you have any best practices to share?
Devorah Heitner, PhD is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World and the founder of Raising Digital Natives a resource for schools and families wishing to cultivate a climate of digital citizenship.
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One of my favorite parts of Raising Digital Natives is presenting to parent groups, teachers and administrators. Frequently, parents and teachers share their experiences with me, so I learn as much as I teach. Being exposed to the concerns parents and teachers have about kids in the digital age is extremely informative and valuable to shaping the the ways Raising Digital Natives can help families and schools.
For educators, this list offers a helpful orientation to parent concerns that you may wish to address directly in your parent engagement communication. Here are some more ideas for how educators can respond to parent concerns. I’ve collected some of these common concerns from recent conversations with parents.
See if you identify with any of these concerns:
- How much “screen time” is too much?
These days, it seems children never get a break from technology. Whether at school or at home, for work or for play, there’s always a screen in the room. But at what point do the harms of digital devices outweigh their benefits? When is it time to disconnect?
- How much video game time is too much?
Kids love their video games. If left alone, many kids would have no problem at all spending an entire day building and exploring on Minecraft. While this type of gaming does have its benefits, most adults will agree that a day-long gaming marathon is excessive.
- Are social skills at risk?
Sometimes, kids will choose playing with a computer over playing with their friends. While gaming can be social, is this damaging to their socialization? Does excessive screen time cause kids to miss out on learning how to deal with important social scenarios? How harmful is the lack of real, face-to-face interaction to their social development? In Chapter five of my book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World, I address the idea that empathy is the app and that kids can learn to consider the people they game with or share social networks with in thoughtful ways.
- How do you ensure safety on the Internet?
It’s no secret that the Internet is chock-full of content that is not appropriate for children. Younger children may be unaware that this type of content—as well as more serious online dangers—exist, they also may not know how to avoid them. How do you protect your children and stay Web-safe without infringing on their browsing privacy?
- Is traditional learning at risk?
When tablets replace notebooks in the classroom, opportunities for digital learning are arguably limitless. However, perhaps children do benefit from old-school, pen-and-paper techniques. By eliminating the traditional methods of teaching, are their developmental learning tools suffering in some way?
- How can a child focus with so many distractions?
“But I need my computer to do homework!” Children can’t be good students without finishing their work, often on computers and/or tablets. But computers, tablets, and other devices are often multi-purpose. That means that they also have games and other opportunities to connect with friends. When tempted by things more fun than homework, how is it possible to let kids use technology but still keep them focused? In Screenwise, I share how to co-create solutions to distractions, while acknowledging that we ALL get distracted.
- Can kids still find fun without technology?
Are the days of riding bikes and climbing trees entirely behind us? When video games and computers offer instant and easy distractions, what happens to the “traditional” ways that kids play? Can kids still independently find amusement, and can we trust them to find creative and productive ways to stay entertained?
- What should parents of different age groups expect?
While many of these questions persist as kids grow, oftentimes, new ones arise. Every age group uses and understands technology in different ways. What particular issues should parents of a six-year-old be concerned about, and how do they differ from those of a twelve-year-old?
- Does social media create “FOMO?”
A major cause of social stress for children and teenagers is the Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO. Will the sad feeling of not getting invited to the birthday party be made worse by scrolling through the group selfies from the party on Instagram. How do we avoid this, and how do we deal with it if it arises? Kids talk about how to manage Exclusion in the Instagram Age in this post.
- Is the parent/teacher connection at risk?
Rest in Peace, Red Pen. With tablets replacing traditional homework methods, parent involvement almost inevitably decreases. This is a surprise to some parents—something they weren’t expecting. When it’s harder to see teacher feedback on homework, how can parents bridge that gap with educators in order to continue to help their kids in the same way? I’ve also written some guidelines for parent/teacher communication in the digital age.
Do you have other concerns about children and technology that I haven’t addressed here?
Check out my new book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. Let me hear from you! I’ll be sharing solutions and strategies for each of these concerns on my blog and in the book that I’m currently writing. Would you like a free chapter of Screenwise?
Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from you!
As technologies evolve, so do the rules of etiquette. While you might be confident about teaching your kids etiquette in the real world, you may feel that it’s more of a challenge in the online world. It takes some time to learn the new rules, and they seem to change every time a new platform emerges.
As I mentioned in my last post, our kids are more isolated from adult communication today because so much of our peer communication takes place in a private, not public, setting. Email or text messages are sent and received out of “public” view, leaving fewer opportunities for kids to get etiquette cues from you—or other adults.
There’s another layer of complexity, too. Just because you exist in social spheres like your kids do, it doesn’t mean that the rules are the same for them as they are for you. So what can you do to learn the rules, together with your child?
Shrinking the scope
Where do kids learn digital etiquette? Though social media is a worldwide community (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), kids are getting their social training in much smaller communities (home, their friends, in the classroom). In many ways, social media at home or in-class blogs are ideal spaces to learn about social media etiquette, and can serve as great training wheels. It offers an accepting environment where a knowledgeable adult can help kids understand when they make communication errors, and help kids make repairs when they offend one another or miss important cues about how to respond. A community where people interact both online and offline is a great way to learn the new rules of digital etiquette.
“Friending” is a huge pressure for kids. This pressure can lead them into making poor decisions. For instances, they often feel that they have to agree to “follow” or “like” something, even if they don’t. Kids I’ve interviewed say that they are really difficult and uncomfortable to NOT accept a Friend Request or to ask a peer to take down (or untag) a photo.
What can you do to help? To open the conversation, you can say, “I got a Facebook request today from someone I went to high school with—but we barely even knew each other.” This gives you the opportunity to let your kids know that it’s OK to ignore the request—that they have a choice in the matter. To be more prescriptive, try giving them an informal limit on the number of people that can follow them initially. Instagram works well as a model for this. This will teach them how to be selective about their social sphere.
Sharing social circles
Surprise! Your networks are already connected. You have to remember—and respect—the ways that your own network indirectly corresponds with theirs.
For example, if your 8-year-old has a crush and you think it is cute, you can share the story offline with your best friend (out for coffee, for instance) without too much risk of embarrassing your child. But if you share the same story online (Facebook or e-mail), you risk wider exposure in unanticipated ways. Not only that, but your kids are learning from your interactions. Your mistakes today could become their mistakes in the future.
What can you do to help? Ask their permission to share. Whether it’s pictures of your kids or news about them, get their permission first. It shows them very clearly that they have control over their social space. Treat anything that enters their “Friend World” as THEIRS—not yours. Even oblique references to their social dramas should stay out of your Facebook feed. Even in person, this is a good rule. It pays to respect privacy. But the online world is more volatile, and you certainly don’t want your teen’s first bra or awkward crush to be community news.
Their friends are not your friends
I can’t emphasize this enough—don’t “friend” your kids’ friends. At least don’t initiate the connection. Nothing annoys kids more than this. They need to feel some control over managing these relationships, and you don’t want to take that feeling of control away from them. But what if your child’s friend “follows” or “friends” you first?
What can you do to help? Again, ask your child directly. This can be tricky territory, so give them some control over it. Keep in mind that their world is different from yours. Some kids change friends quickly, though they don’t always dump the digital connection—even when they don’t sit together at lunch anymore. Adults can relate to this, but the pace and churn of adult relationships is generally slower. Whether or not your kid allows you to be friends with one of their schoolmates will give you an indicator of how important that relationship is—and opens a door into their world for you. For instance, if your child tells you 6 weeks from now that you should “unfriend” someone, you have clues to her social life that you wouldn’t see otherwise.
Their teachers are not your friends–or theirs
Maybe this is obvious, but don’t “friend” their teachers, occupational therapists, camp counselors, or youth group leaders. These connections belong to them, not to you. For example, your child spends 6 hours a day with her fifth grade teacher. There’s little ambiguity that your child hold the primary relationship with her teacher, even if you are friends outside the classroom.
For the most part, your child shouldn’t be connected on social media with these folks either. Do you really want to kid to see everything his karate teacher posts to Instagram?
What can you do to keep boundaries clear and appropriate? The biggest complication is when who holds the “primary” relationship is ambiguous—when your child’s guidance counselor or teacher’s aide is already your friend. Just be cautious and thoughtful.
Another note about teachers and social media: Many schools get worried that parents are discussing teachers online, or posting anonymously on Great Schools or Rate My Teachers. Sites of this type can be useful for a more honest, parent-level opinion. But comments can drift towards the extremes. And “Rate My Teacher” is feedback that is totally out of context. Consider if you would want anonymous, public rating of your work.
The bottom line: take it offline. Especially when class placements come out—talk in person. And model appropriate boundaries and non-gossipy behavior for your children.
Being “friends” with your teen
The best way to help your child manage these issues is to be close to her—in the same spaces. But if your teen agrees to “friend” you, (or if you make this a condition of being on social media) take this show of trust very seriously, and be a good friend. Don’t make yourself too present. Don’t be seen or comment too often. Don’t share their news before they do (or at all.) Don’t be surprised if they find it “creepy” that you brought up something that they shared, even though it was public.
What can you do to help? “Like” the things you are safe to like. Or talk about it face to face. Find an opportunity to remind them verbally that you saw something on their Instagram feed, which will serve as a gentle reminder to your child that you are part of her “public.” As Danah Boyd points out, kids share to their own concept of a public, those readers, friends or followers that are on their minds at the moment—or the ones sharing a particular experience. The danger lies in that they are probably not considering their whole network every time they share. Lurk more and say less, unless of course something you see demands your attention.
Etiquette is always evolving to accommodate new communication technologies. In spite of this, we can mentor our kids to behave thoughtfully and empathetically online and offline.
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As parents or teachers we can get too focused on PREVENTING digital mistakes that can ruin friendships and reputations. We need to offer mentorship to our kids on how to repair things (when possible). We can model this in our own social media lives.
Kids need to see that relationships are complex, even for adults. It’s important for them to see how to manage a mistake—with honesty, empathy, and patience.
We can’t make them feel like a digital mistake is ever a good reason to end their own lives. We must stop catastrophizing and focus on repair.
To read the full article, When Texting Goes Wrong: Helping Kids Repair and Resolve Issues on A Platform for Good, click here.
Image by Kelly Hogaboom.
Many parents ask me—should I spy on my kids or is that an invasion of privacy? Apps like “My Mobile Watch Dog” and “TeenSafe” give parents the power to read all their kids’ texts. But then what? I tell parents: Mentoring is more powerful than monitoring.
It helps to understand your own goals before you take action. Has there been an incident that spurred a spying strategy? Or is it a general fear about what your child could be doing—because you don’t know about it?
In addition to looking at your goals, set a plan before you start. Think about what your response will be if or when you encounter:
- Bad (or inappropriate) language;
- Negative talk about other kids;
- Negative talk about adults or teachers;
- Negative talk about you or other parents.
- Inappropriate pictures.
Mentoring vs. Monitoring: Be honest with yourself about your goals
The new digital world that our kids inhabit leaves parents feeling like they have less and less control to do the work of parenting. A natural inclination is to take some control back. Impose rules on device use, or monitor kids’ activities. After all, how can we have influence over them if we feel like they are isolated from us?
While this can be effective (and maybe even necessary), let me make a brief case for mentoring rather than monitoring.
- First of all, if you are covert about your spying, you could lose the opportunity for mentoring. You may feel that it’s your right as a parent, but your child will see it as a breach of trust. When this happens, your child may “close off” or feel that she has to be sneaky now. In other words, you could actually do more damage by spying, and have the opposite effect of what you intend.
- Plus, your kids may already be on to you. They are clever, and I’ve seen a few kids go to great lengths to evade covert spying. For instance, keeping and managing two Instagram accounts—a “family-friendly” one and another “real” account, using a fake/code name. You can usually tell which one is real by their engagements with other kids, etc.
- Speaking of other kids, spying on your child’s communication means that you are reading other kids’ communications, too. There are a lot of issues around that, from invasion of privacy to assumed responsibility. Do you tell the other parent up front, or wait until an issue arises? What if another parent is reading your child’s communications to their kid? Would you want them to call you about your child’s communication? To my point about goals, it really helps think these things through in advance.
- You may never see your kids’ friends the same way if you are reading their texts. Or your own. Are you ready?
What if you decide to spy?
If you do spy—and there are some situations, including new stages of experience (i.e. first time users) that may warrant this—then here are a few tips:
- Be honest. Tell your kids up front that you are going to be watching, and why you feel you need to do this. Demonstrate to them how your relationship will be better and more open because of this. After all, you are being honest with them—not covert.
- Show how it will help. Tell your kids that you are going to help them understand how to communicate better. Socializing via text and social media is complicated, and you’ll help them navigate it. Assure them that they won’t lose their own style of communicating.
- Set a duration. Be clear that if they meet your expectations in how to communicate, that you will feel the need to check less frequently or you will stop completely unless you sense there is serious trouble and your child isn’t telling you.
- Create an alternative. Instead of spying, are you open to having them give you a tour of their social media accounts once a month?
- Raise a flag. Have your child point out to you when they get a message that’s not appropriate. Prompt them, if necessary. If they learn to do this on their own, not only can you use the opportunity to teach them, but you’ll also be building up your trust in your child as well.
What if you see something you don’t like?
Suppose you see something you don’t like. An inappropriate picture exchanged, mean or hurtful words about a classmate, or worse—an accusation or threat. What do you do?
- First, try not to over-react. You could be missing a lot of context by seeing this one infraction. I’m not saying not to take it seriously—just make sure you remain calm and think it through before reacting. You have to tread very carefully, and it helps to have a strategy.
- Ask, don’t accuse. You need more context to assess the situation and make good decisions. Ask some open-ended questions about what’s going on, rather than confronting your child directly.
- Assess and take action. How serious is the situation, and how urgent is it? For instance, if you have reason to believe your child is being bullied, in an abusive relationship, or getting threatening texts from a peer (or an adult), you need to act immediately. But if we are talking about the everyday social dramas of elementary, middle, and even high school, it is more helpful to be supportive and not overbearing.
- Teach “repair.” It’s ideal if the child can fix the issue on his/her own, and your mentoring can really help here. Teach your child that if a post or text message upsets them, it is better to calm down and speak to the person directly (if possible), or to seek help from a parent or other adult if the situation is too serious to handle on their own.
Building a strong, honest, and open relationship with your child is the best defense against the “digital issues” your family faces day to day. Protection apps like “Phone Sheriff” (and hundreds of other similar apps) are simply no match for your experience, and won’t help your child develop good judgment in communicating. Issues are an opportunity for learning—for you and your child!