In this live conversation, parenting experts Devorah Heitner and Rosalind Wiseman will discuss how to help kids navigate ALL. THE. SCREENS. How can we help them find the balance with tech when so many other options have been taken away? How can we help them navigate friendship drama and conflict online and offline that may come up during this time? July 16, 6pm EST, 5pm CST, 4pm MST, 3pm PST 12pm HST
Moderated by Susan Borison at Your Teen Magazine.
During this webinar, you will learn…
Strategies to support your child’s wellbeing and balance technology
How to understand and empathize with the ways social media can be challenging right now
Skills to help young people understand and process the news cycle–for some kids this is an activating inspiring time, for others it can be overwhelming
How to help our kids deal with anxiety during this time.
Best practices for setting family agreements and routines around technology.
How to manage your reactions with your own digital use. How can we model thoughtful tech use and wisdom?
Bring your questions! We will open it up for Q&A at the end.
A recording will be sent out after.
By registering for the webinar, you agree to receive communications from Devorah Heitner, Cultures of Dignity and Your Teen Media.
An expert on young people’s relationship with digital media and technology, Dr. Devorah Heitner is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World and founder of Raising Digital Natives. Her mission is to cultivate a culture of empathy and social/emotional literacy. Dr. Heitner’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, TIME magazine and Education Week. She has a Ph.D. in Media/Technology & Society from Northwestern University and has taught at DePaul and Northwestern. She is delighted to be raising her own digital native.
From where we learn to where we work, Rosalind Wiseman fosters civil dialogue and inspires communities to build strength, courage and purpose. She is the co-founder of Cultures of Dignity; an organization that shifts the way communities think about our physical and emotional wellbeing by working in close partnership with the experts of those communities–young people, educators, policy makers, and business and political leaders. A multiple New York Times best selling author including Queen Bees and Wannabes that was made into the movie and musical Mean Girls, a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Washington Post and other publications and international speaker, she lives in Boulder Colorado with her husband and two sons.
Susan Borison founded Your Teen Media in 2007 to help parents of teenagers find support and advice during the turbulent years of raising teenagers. As the mother of five, she knew those parenting teenagers was lonely and scary. Your Teen is the village that we lose as our kids get older. After practicing law followed by 15 years trying to figure out the parenting thing, Susan discovered the solution at Your Teen Media, where parents and experts share their hard earned secrets. Your Teen Media: The Advice You Trust. The Community You Need.
Why does homework seem to take longer on the computer? And is your child actually doing schoolwork, or just playing games and group texting? We as parents need to help our kids manage the new homework landscape – and it helps to go in with a strategy.
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!
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!
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 that technology is a distraction – that 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?
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 Ageis 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:
How can you keep up with all of them? Well, you don’t really have to—you just need to know which apps/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 Whisper to talk to strangers, most kids interested in interacting with peers 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. It also can be stressful and time consuming keeping up ongoing Snapchat Streaks. It’s important to teach young people how to manage these 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:
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!
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A common refrain that I hear from parents that today’s kids “have no regard for privacy!” Their evidence? A teenager’s “rant” on Facebook. An inappropriate divulgence via Twitter. A photo that would be better deleted than shared.
I still remember walking home from 7th grade when a friend said she hated her parents. I had never dared to think something like that, let alone say it aloud. I rolled it around in my head. As I got to know her, I realized she had good reason to be deeply angry with her folks. But communicating her truth to me was private and profound. Now consider the same message, but this time, conveyed via social media. “I hate my parents” could easily be taken as light-hearted or a joke—or it could be much more serious than that.
The fact is that these two “social spaces” are vastly different. The issue is not that kids don’t have a sense of privacy, but instead a lack of understanding about how to manage each one of these terrains. Teaching kids how to manage these distinctions is tricky.
All of this centers around a strong set of values—which parents and other mentors, can model for kids. The new world of social media does mean we all get to ignore our values, but it does require us to help young people navigate how their ideas get filtered and shared through these new means of communication. For instance, you have a sense of when it’s OK to resolve an issue via e-mail, but you also understand when it’s best to have a face-to-face discussion. The issue for kids is no different at its core—it’s just the medium that’s different. The challenge for you lies in the nuances of each communication mechanism, be it Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. Stick to your core values. It is OK to emphasize things such as loyalty, but show your kids the difference between the the ways we communicate.
Take for example a situation where you are angry with a friend. You need to vent. You call another friend of yours and do just that. You unload all the details. You feel better. Yes, there’s a risk in this—the “venting” conversation might get back to the first friend. But imagine how different that would be if you instead vented about your friend on your blog or Tumblr—and she discovered the post 3 weeks later? The issue may actually have been resolved in person by now—but social media will “remember.” For all intents and purposes, it’s a permanent record—even though it feels ephemeral.
This is incredibly challenging for kids to understand. So what can you do?
Set a social media policy for your family, what can be shared and not shared. Talk about it directly.
Walk through hypothetical situations, using real friends and family. That way, your kids will understand it in the context of real empathy and real emotions.
Have your kids look for and point out to you things that their peers are doing “wrong.” This will get them to cast a critical eye on social interactions, using real examples. It gives you a good sense of their judgement.
If your child does complain about you on social media, DON’T return the favor. Criticizing your child in your own social media posts is always the wrong way to go. Don’t shoot your child’s laptop. Do explain why airing this kind of grievances publicly is NOT a good way to resolve family conflict. Look for alternate ways to re-establish trust and communication.
In the comments, please share your experiences with kids and privacy. How do you teach your kids, or your students to understand what to share, where to share and how to communicate their thoughts and feelings with regard to their own privacy as well as privacy for others.
PS: Would you like informative posts like this in your inbox? Along with occasional updates and offers from Raising Digital Natives?Sign up here!
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.
Getting Your Child a Phone?
Are you ready? Are they ready? Join my Cell Phone Boot Camp to get ready to support them through this important transition. Already got your child a phone and now wishing you’d been more prepared? This class will also be helpful for a family that has recently purchased a phone for their child (in the past year) and would like some help making it work.
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.
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.
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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.
I always start by examining their goals. What is your objective? What are you looking for? What do you hope to see or NOT to see? What would be a yellow flag to you? What about a red flag?
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.
When you put all these together, it’s easy to see why this is such a source of stress for families. Do you wish there was a course on this? After years of research and talking with families, I’ve created:
This is an online class for families launching a new phone user. This could be useful anytime in the first year or so with a phone. How can you decrease conflicts and improve family communication, and clarify expectations about the phone and how your child will use it.
This course will cover:
Assessing your family’s current digital situation
Planning and organizing your physical space at home to maximize positive outcomes
Common digital citizenship challenges for new smartphone users
What social skills kids need to be successful with their phones and more.
Planning for boundaries around when your child will have access to the device
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!