Parenting tweens gets a bad rap. In my work helping parents and schools with kids and social media, I hear a lot of complaining about kids between 9 and 13 “growing up too fast,” being “immature” or “distracted.” My digital citizenship workshops with kids this age have given me a window into their creativity
Many parents who come to my events are excited about my becoming a tech-positive parent...up to a point. But they are also sick of battling with their kids. Some of them harbor an idealized version of the past, which can lead to a negative impression of technology. Here are some "next steps" to help.
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!
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.
Romance, Love, and Crushes in the Digital Age
Pew Center for Internet and American Life is one of my favorite sources of useful data on how kids and families are using technology. In October 2015, they released a study showing that, (surprise!) kids are still falling in love, getting crushes, getting mad, getting even, etc.
So things haven’t changed…that much. But for those parents who worry about the new added complications of technology on dating life, I have some good news: at least in 2015, most kids were not actually meeting or “hooking up” with other people online.
It may feel like dating has moved entirely to the Internet, but according to the Pew study, only 8% of all American teens have met a romantic partner online. Though we see a few young people are using Tinder, Grindr and other “hookup” apps, these are supposed to be only used by those eighteen or older. Also, as one mother of a 9th grader told me, despite the racy implications, her son started a “traditional” dating relationship with a girl he met via Tinder. In this day and age, “traditional” meant that she drove her son to a bookstore café to meet the girl in person for the first time while she waited outside. Since then, this particular mom has met the girl’s parents, and have gotten together to go out to the kids’ basketball games and to one another’s school plays. While the kids live 20 minutes apart in different suburbs–and might not have otherwise met–their relationship itself does not seem different to his mother than if they had met at a swim meet or debate tournament.
Connection, Connection, Connection
Once teens or tweens are involved romantically, their expectations are surely affected by the availability of constant connection. This is directly in parallel with the changes in expectations in our own adult relationships. For example, my husband and I were dating before we had cell phones, and our expectations for being in contact (while far lower than these teenagers!), are still more frequent than they were before we had these devices with us at all times. Fully 85% of young people surveyed, expected to hear from their partner at least once a day. 11% expected to hear from their partners once an hour!
Teens are just getting used to all the physical and emotional changes that come with puberty and one of those is the infatuation with others their age. While in the past, flirtatious exchanges were confined to lunch and the occasional movie, today every couple can keep in never-ending contact via the phone in their pocket. When talking to your child, remind her that even though she can reach out to her crush at all times does not mean she has to. It’s okay not to text.
On the other hand, flirting, dropping hints, and trying to figure out how mutual an interest or crush is (age old preoccupations) has moved more into the digital realm. In the PEW study, 50% of teens reported that they used Facebook or other social media platforms to flirt or express romantic intentions. While they still may prefer to meet at school or through friends, social media is often times where they feel comfortable discussing their feelings.
Breaking up is Still No Fun
On the other end of the “feelings” spectrum, kids are negotiating both breaking up relationships and fending off unwanted attention in both the traditional ways (face-to-face, phone) and the digital realm (social media, texting, email). The PEW study reports that 25% of all teens have unfriended or blocked someone on social media because that person was flirting in a way that made them uncomfortable Perhaps, not surprisingly, Teen girls are more likely to receive uncomfortable flirting online with 35% reporting they’ve had to unfriend or block someone, more than twice as many as the 16% of boys who have had to do the same.
Talk to your kid
Ask your kid how other kids in their school and community ask other people “out” or to become involved. What are the local customs? If your are concerned about harassment, one way to open the door to conversations about these kinds of experiences is to ask your child if she or her friends has ever had to block someone for coming on too strong–or being too persistent. Make sure she knows that this behavior is unacceptable and that she doesn’t have to put up with it. If the behavior doesn’t stop by un-friending or blocking the perpetrator, contacting the school–or the authorities–may be necessary.
Most of what we know about dating for young people in the digital age should remind us to have empathy for kids…learning to deal with romantic feelings towards other is as awkward, terrifying and exhilarating as it ever was!
“Teens, Technology and Romantic Relationships.” Pew Research Center Internet Science Tech RSS. 01 Oct. 2015. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.
I just had a chance to have a conversation with Annie Fox, M.Ed, the host of Family Confidential: Secrets of Successful Parenting. I’ve been a fan of Annie’s parenting expertise and youth mentoring for many years, so I was honored to be invited to be a guest on her podcast.
Highlights: What Makes a Good Friend?
Annie and I spoke about how you can use social media as a locus for talking with your kids about friendships, what makes a good friend and how to deal with conflict and change in relationships.
And how can parents help their kids be good friends in these interactive spaces?
How can we help our kids have high enough expectations of their peers?
We don’t want our kids to tolerate mean or thoughtless treatment as a matter of course…
Here’s the video (below). Just press the play button to view.
Some of the highlights: Find Clarity Through Boundaries
We talked about how helping your child identify positive boundaries is important.
- When she has friends over, it is OK to expect the friend to hang out with you and not spend the whole time on the phone!
- Another important boundary that we can help our kids express to their friends is that they can’t be available 24/7. Kids need to know that they are not being rude if they don’t respond to a status update or text when they are supposed to be sleeping or doing homework.
- Or, as Annie pointed out, when they are out on their bike and prefer to ignore the buzz in their back pocket.
Finally, we discussed the perennial question: How do I know my child is ready for a cellphone.
Hint: It is not a certain birthday… Their skills, responsibility and need for independence (for example to travel around the community on their own) are the most relevant criteria.
It was so much fun talking with Annie. If you are on a roll an want to see all my podcast appearances ever, you can check them out here.
Please let me know your thoughts on these approaches to nurturing our kids social skills or share additional questions you’d like me to cover in a future podcast in the comments.
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.
PS: Would you like informative posts like this in your inbox? Along with occasional updates and offers from Raising Digital Natives? Sign up here!
In the last few years, since founding Raising Digital Natives, I’ve been working with parents, teachers and students at schools around the country. I was asked to work with a large group of students a few years ago, and I called in a trusted colleague, Karen Jacobson, a school counselor with lots of great experience counseling kids around digital age challenges with peers to collaborate.
After the workshop, we discussed the preponderance of curricula available to educators that focus on Internet Safety, but don’t delve into the identify-focused, friendship-focused territory that we are especially interested. What is the difference between cyber-bullying and just plain mean behavior? How should kids deal with witnessing their own exclusion in social media? How can kids repair when they make mistakes? How can they avoid conflicts when texting? We decided that we should write a curriculum to share our ideas and exercises that focus on the social/emotional side of growing up in the digital world. Youthlight Press released our curriculum this spring! We’ll be speaking about it at a couple of upcoming conferences. My favorite thing to do with the curriculum is visit a school, lead the students in some of the lessons with counselors, advisors or other mentors sitting in, and then make a plan with those mentors for the work to continue.
We are delighted that Marti Weston, an expert in educational technology integration and digital citizenship has reviewed our curriculum in her blog Media, Tech, Parenting!
Weston writes: “With its flexibility and its focus on adults as connected world coaches and mentors (not lecturers), Connecting Wisely stands head and shoulders above many other curricula in this category.”
As an experienced educator, Weston makes a case for our curriculum to be integrated into curriculum, as opposed to being taught separately. This is exactly our intention with the curriculum. These values and ideas can be woven into both school and extra-curricular activities and should not be segregated into an “Internet Safety” or “Digital Citizenship” silo.
Weston concludes: “If a goal is to make it clear to today’s digital natives that we expect them to carry out positive and respectful values wherever they work and play, we need to take the time to develop a strategy that reinforces those values everywhere they work and play. Connecting Wisely in the Digital Age is a book and a tool to help us get started.”
Social media comes in a variety of forms, but the goal is the largely the same for kids. It serves as a “third space” for teens and tweens—an additional place outside of home and school. It’s a place where young people can “hang out,” even when they are not with their friends.
Most grownups think of social media as Facebook and Twitter. While those are the most popular ones worldwide, they may not be the ones that your kids favor. For instance, Facebook has fallen out of favor with many (though not all) younger kids because to them, it’s “for old people.” Think back to when you were a kid. You didn’t want to hang out where your parents hung out—it wasn’t cool.
There are literally hundreds of different social media platforms, and the goal is usually one of three things: To chat, share, or play. Some platforms do more than one thing. Here are some of the most popular examples:
- Chat: Kik, WhatsApp, Yik Yak, Streetchat, Snapchat
- Posts—Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook
- Pictures—Snapchat, Instagram
- Videos—Keek, Vine
- Play: Minecraft, Clash of Clans, Candy Crush
How can you keep up with all of them? Well, you don’t really have to—you just need to know which site(s) your child is using. Then you can learn a little bit about the platform, how your child is using it, and with whom they are connecting.
In my experience working with parents, this is a big worry for them. They fear that kids will be talking to strangers, making themselves vulnerable to predators. The reality is that while kids may use services such as Omegle to talk to strangers, they are predominantly interested in interacting with other kids they already know. To them, social media feels like a peer space. They don’t want to be talking to adults—they want to extend and enhance the time they spend with the friends they already have.
Even though they are communicating mostly with their peers, kids can sometimes lack a full understanding of the scope of their social sphere. They sometimes share things intended for a few of their friends and forget that their parents (or even a wider peer group) might see what they’ve shared. It helps to gently remind them from time to time—that you saw one of their posts, for instance. You might use it to open a discussion about who else might have seen a text message. Or what has happened to you when you’ve sent a text to someone in error. This is not to scare them, but to just be a little more aware of the effects of unintended communication.
Young teens’ and tweens’ identities are in flux, so they are especially attracted to the social media photo communication applications like Snapchat. They get the chance to test out personae. The backside of this is that sharing photos can lead to surface judgments and virtual beauty contests. These challenges exist in the real world too, but social media can depersonalize it and encourage kids to take things out of context. It’s important to teach young people how to manage these “new” challenges.
Despite all of these challenges, social media can be important to the development of your kids’ social skills. Learning social norms and appropriate behavior is difficult for kids—even in the real world. The help you offer to them is no different, despite the medium. Here are some of suggestions for Helping Kids Manage the New Rules of Digital Etiquette.
If you are a regular reader, you know that I favor mentorship over monitoring—and using empathy as the keystone of your strategy. Here are some other resources to help you with each:
- Mentoring vs. Monitoring: Should I Spy?
- My TEDx “Empathy is The App”
- Dealing with witnessing your own exclusion on social media.
In addition to needing peer hangout time, kids do crave spaces to think about the role of social media in their lives. I just published a new curriculum, co-authored with Karen Jacobson, full of challenging and fun activities to help kids think about and manage the new and ever-changing challenges of the digital world. While it’s pitched towards teachers and group leaders, parents could get a lot out of it too. It’s called Connecting Wisely in the Digital Age: Social Emotional Exercises For Plugged in Kids. (You can buy the curriculum here.) I’ve been leading workshops with these exercises at schools around the country. Students have responded very enthusiastically!
Young people really crave opportunities to discuss these issues…Let them lead, but ask them about the latest app, or something they’ve seen their peers do in social media, and give them a chance to reflect. You’ll both learn so much!
PS: Would you like informative posts like this in your inbox? Along with occasional updates and offers from Raising Digital Natives? Sign up here!
I just returned from speaking at SXSWedu. I had an incredible time—what an experience. SXSWedu is unlike most education conferences because of the diversity of speakers and attendees. There were app developers, policy experts, publishers, school leaders, teachers, students, and activists all at the same conference in Austin, TX. Not quite as huge as the Interactive and Music festivals that follow, but large enough that it could feel overwhelming at times, or at least cause twinges of the “fear of missing out.” Luckily, my interactions and experiences were so engaging that I had little time to consider what might be happening elsewhere at the same moment. I can’t possibly do justice to my whole experience, nor will I try to make you hungry by detailing all the amazing tacos I ate in Austin. But here are a few of the conversations that I got to dip into that will inspire my writing, speaking, and consulting going forward.
There were a significant number of people who share my obsessions: 1) empathy in the digital age; 2) thoughtful digital citizenship; and 3) parent engagement with educational technology innovation. I was privileged in that my talk was one of the very first sessions of the conference. My Future 15 talk, “This is Their Hearts on Smartphones” offered an update on my TEDx from earlier this year. Afterwards, I got to meet some inspiring people, whom I know I’ll be talking to and learning from again.
I’ve been dying to meet Carl Hooker since we got to work with some other great folks on webinar on engaging parents with edtech. (Free and archived here). Carl and I talked about the huge need for parent support in teaching digital citizenship, professional development for teachers, and student workshops. I got to see him do his incredibly relevant and hysterically funny workshop on parenting in the 21st century called, “Raised by Siri.” Getting to compare notes and strategize about doing this work with a like-minded educator like Carl filled me with inspiration and excitement.
I was also thrilled to encounter Jessica Millstone, a brilliant fellow digital citizenship expert I’ve been hoping to meet for years! She’s at Brain Pop, one of my favorite ed tech companies. We got to chat at a EdTechWomen’s lovely meetup for women in educational technology where we enjoyed hors d’oeuvres, skyline views, and the company of smart women who develop, consult, and innovate in the world of ed tech.
After my talk, I also met Professor Nick Bowman—and I got to attend his panel as well. He’s a professor in the Communication Department at West Virginia University, researching how individuals construct their relationships with social media. I can’t wait to hear more about his research and to share some data here. As a former professor of Media Studies, I love to catch up with academic colleagues to hear the latest in the field.
Privacy vs. Parents: Diving Into the Controversies
SXSWedu has been the site of controversial discussions about privacy in the past, so it was great to hear from experts about the latest recommendations for best practices. Two years ago at SXSWedu, the controversial student data collection/analysis repository inBloom was a major presenter. Parents around the country were very concerned about how inBloom might use and share student data. Ultimately, pushback from concerned parents caused inBloom to close. This story is the perfect cautionary tale of educational technology NOT meeting parental concerns—exactly the kind of breakdown I am working to address.
Since my parent engagement work helps schools understand parental concerns better, this erosion of trust between parents, schools, and policy makers is very instructive to my work. So you can imagine that I was very excited to dive into discussions of privacy at SXSWedu, including a summit on Privacy and Student Data.
It was at this summit that I caught the latest research from Pew Researcher Amanda Lenhart. The Pew research on the “Internet and American Life” is one of the sources of data I share most frequently in my parent talks. Amanda Lenhart presented updates from Pew’s studies of teenagers. One key data point is that teenagers “do take steps to actively manage their reputations online.” Based on my own conversations with young adults, I find this to be true as well—and use it to reassure the parents and teachers with whom I work.
Meeting app/curriculum designers in person
One of the best reasons to go to SXSWedu was to meet people who research, develop, create, and market the tech tools used by students and educators with whom I work. I had a great time at Edutopia’s party chatting with Ronnie Burt from EduBlogs, a tool that allows students to blog and share their experiences—and Henry Lyford from Edmodo, a collaborative tool used by numerous schools that I’ve worked with. I learned so much from them about how they incorporate teacher and student feedback into their work! Getting to talk to app creators is such a great chance to learn about the feedback process, and to see how important our experience as everyday users is to these companies.
On the empathy front, I was delighted to meet Rachel Zindler and Hannah Rosenthal from Teaching2gether, a new organization that is doing some amazing work around inclusion and rethinking special needs education. Teaching2gether did a great session that helped educators feel empathy for all of their different learners by offering simulations of various learning differences and physical disabilities so educators could experience how they would impair engagement in a typical classroom. The experiential strategy made for great conversations and allowed the audience to engage at a much deeper level than is typical for a panel presentation.
At this session, I met another app designer: Michele Walker, a guidance counselor and mother who created the app Choiceworks to help her own quirky kids thrive in school and at home. Since I use Choiceworks at home, Michele is a hero to me!
Finally, as a co-author of a brand-new curriculum, it was exciting to meet Andrea Lovanhill, who works with the highly regarded anti-bullying curriculum, Second Step. I loved that we met on an escalator and she took the time to have a quick lunch with me so I could learn more about Second Step.
Overall, experiences like this left me feeling like the trek to SXSWedu was highly worthwhile. So many great people were willing to talk and engage—it was an honor to be on the program and get to share my work in such smart company. This post only describes a fraction of the encounters and fantastic conversations I had at SXSWedu. I look forward to continuing the conversations and collaborating with my digital citizenship comrades in the very near future!