From the beginning, parental and societal concerns about the digital world have focused on safety, and the appalling news that the rape of three children was the direct result of encounters on an app called Skout will doubtless deepen them. Whatever dialogue accompanies Facebook’s new plan to let preteens join (legally, this time) will doubtless be about safety, not psychology—which is the more important issue. The focus on safety has pretty much scotched whatever efforts have been made to keep cell phones out the classrooms, since many parents worry about Columbine-type scenarios.
There’s nothing wrong with worrying about your child’s safety, of course. The real problem is that by focusing the discussion on safety alone, we’re not talking about the digital elephant in the living room, which influences the development of young children and adolescents. It shapes how they think in the broadest sense. It affects how and what they read, what information they prioritize, how they socialize, and how they see themselves.
Why are parents in the main ignoring the psychological elephant? Why are they handing babies digital devices or parking them in front of televisions when they’ve been told “no screens until the age of 2?” Why are they letting ten-year-olds go on Facebook, or thirteen-year-olds upload to YouTube, and use apps like Skout, which allowed them to “flirt” with strangers who were geographically nearby? Okay, would someone please tell me why Skout is a good idea for anyone, much less teenagers who are notoriously very, very bad at anticipating consequences and calculating risks? (It’s their brains, in part, that are to blame.) The problem with Skout wasn’t just the predators but the very concept, when you’re talking about adolescents.
Are parents willfully ignoring the psychological elephant? Why don’t they want to hear about the impact digital life has on development? (Every time I write a post like this, fewer people read it… Hmmmm.)
First and foremost, technology is the here and now, and parents want their kids to be part of the here and now. They are convinced that technology = success in the future because they have been told that again and again. The warnings about the digital divide in the late 1990s—all those “have nots” who would be locked out of the bounty to be reaped in the technological age—got the attention of every household with children and the means in America who geared up appropriately so their offspring could be masters of the Information Age. As a result, many parents wrongly equate digital agility—which they sometimes lack themselves—with technological skill. There is, however, a huge difference between using a digital device or an app and knowing how to build one—a difference, I fear, many parents don’t readily appreciate. In addition, the Information Age serves up a smorgasbord of information and misinformation, fact and faux factoid, many of them indistinguishable to digital natives who haven’t been trained to spot the difference. As a result, as some experts have opined, there may be a new intellectual divide—those young people who find their passions earlier and are capable of “deep thinking,” and the agile skimmers who have only mastered a Google search and who won’t be the Master of much anytime soon.
Second, the competitiveness of today’s world makes some parents fearful that if they make their kids digitally drop out on some level—from Facebook, from texting, from you-name-it—somehow those kids will lose social standing or capital. Belonging has always been important to tweens and adolescents but the ante has been upped in the digital age. “I worry about Facebook,” the mother of a twelve-year-old said, “ But all of her friends are on it. I’m afraid she’ll miss out.” Will you be hobbling your child by keeping him or her off Facebook? It takes a strong-minded parent to make that decision, and certainly there are some parents making it. Keep in mind that, according to a 2011 Consumer Reports survey, 7.5 million kids under the age of 13 were on Facebook anyway, because they lied about their age. A Pew report says that 49% of kids 12-13 admit having lied to get on. Surprise, surprise. But all this too stops us from talking about the digital elephant.
Third, parents like to think that when they glance into their child’s room and they see all those screens, something really educational is happening. Look at all that multi-tasking! Six or so years ago, in keeping with the first studies of teens on the Internet, experts predicted a surge in creativity as a Pew Center report noted that 28% of teens were blogging. Many anticipated a nation of diarists and an improvement in writing skills. Now, though, most teens don’t blog (a mere 14% do, most of them from lower income households) and instead of writing, the activity has been whittled down to the status update on Facebook or Twitter. The truth is that most of the activity online is nothing more than diversion. Do we really want more nine-year-olds joining in the “fun?”
The digital divide has a new meaning nowadays, as The New York Times reported last week, as more and more kids are swept into the time-wasting machine that is much of digital activity. It turns out that less educated parents are more likely not to recognize digital indolence; parents with a college education do a bit better, the Kaiser Family Foundation found. But, before you college grads start patting yourselves on your parental backs, keep in mind that your offspring also use their devices largely for entertainment, not education—some ten hours a day worth! (I’ve asked this question before but do children in America ever sleep?) So, the good news is that your kids are wasting 90 minutes a day fewer than those other time-wasters. Now about that elephant….
Fourth, parents are ignoring the elephant because real monitoring of digital activity takes time, energy, and effort — and many parents simply don’t have enough of any of those—and offers up the real possibility of kid-hostility, as the 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report found. What percentage of parents monitor what? It depends on the study, the definition of “monitor,” and the age of the child. The Kaiser Foundation study found that 64% of parents had rules about computer use for children 8-10; remember that means that 36% had no rules. By the time kids were 11-14, only 60% of parents had rules; that number dropped to 36% for the 15-18 year-old group. Mind you, only 26% of the parents with rules reported enforcing them “most” of the time. Only 39% enforced them “some” of the time.
The truth is that tracking your child’s online activity takes time and effort, and you’d have to pretty much do it every day for it to be effective, so it’s not really surprising that most parents don’t. There’s also the old Parenting 101 problem: it’s easier to say “yes” than "no,” if not necessarily better for your child in the long run.
The Pew Center’s 2011 report is a bit rosier on parental oversight and I suspect these numbers will be used to justify allowing younger kids to go on Facebook, particularly if the parents can control whom the child is friends with and will see what is posted, and thus keep the child “safe.” All of this misses the point, in my opinion: Do kids really need to update their status? Upload pictures? Should the “I am a celebrity in my universe” stance that is part of teen life start earlier? Shouldn’t kids be playing outside or reading? Again, 41% of parents don’t use any kind of parental control over their kids’ use of cells and computers according to this study, and even those that do, tend to talk about how best to navigate cyberspace, rather than using technical means to monitor it, except with younger children.
Finally, some parents at least don’t want to talk about the elephant because that would require cutting back on their own digital activity—the ping of the cell or text at dinner, the Facebook page for bragging and connecting, and the like. After all, it’s fun, isn’t it?
For the moment, everyone is still watching for the predators while the Pachyderm sits undisturbed in their midst.