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Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive in Their Digital World

The Book Brigade talks to media expert Devorah Heitner

Used with permission of author Devorah Heitner
Source: Used with permission of author Devorah Heitner

The perils of screen time—whether it’s sexting, online bullying, excessive video game playing, or social media exposure—have become a prime worry for parents, leading to endless hand-wringing and fretful conversations about how to control kids online. It might be wiser for parents to calm down, get a grip, and learn how to partner with kids to make the most of their digital lives.

You are a media scholar who has taught at major universities, and you run workshops across the country about kids and technology use. What is the most common concern parents have about kids in the digital age?

Parents are overwhelmed by the mixed messages they are receiving about kids and technology. They worry that their kids will be behind if they don’t access technology, but they also worry that kids will be distracted, addicted, disconnected, alone. Many parents worry that face-to-face social skills are declining, but research shows that kids still do desire in-person interactions. Talking to kids helps me realize that kids do care about being a great friend to their peers as well as making a positive impression online. Parents also worry about cyber-bullying and harassment online. They worry about content and what their kids may see online as well as what they will share. I focus on building empathy and a better understanding of our kids’ experience in the digital world—and resisting making assumptions about “what they are doing on there."

What do you mean when you talk about being a "tech-positive parent”?

Tech-positive parents create a supportive environment that focuses on intentional use of technology, which can include planned, unplugged spaces and places. A tech-positive parent recognizes that she is a model, so she's thoughtful and self-aware about her own relationship with devices and recognizes that her behavior sets the tone for the whole family. In her own interactions on social media, school lists, email, etc, the tech-positive parent is a model of civility in his online and offline correspondence with friends, colleagues, his child’s teacher, and everyone else. She creates clearly defined boundaries and adheres to them, just as she expects other family members to adhere to them. He teaches and models respect for other people’s boundaries in the digital world, asking permission before sharing or posting. She can teach kids that it is wasteful to use the incredible gift of connectivity for navel-gazing, self-promotion, or obsessing about other people. Sometimes that means thoughtfully taking a break or readjusting his or her own social media.

It is important to point out that tech-positive parenting involves being open with other parents about the challenges and pleasures of technology in family life so as to benefit from the wisdom of other parents. So many parents are consumed by screen-time guilt that they miss out on talking with other parents about this important aspect of contemporary life. Ultimately, a tech-positive parent is collaborating with her kids on using the power of technology to make a positive difference in the world!

Being tech-positive doesn’t mean being plugged in all the time—in fact it could mean lots of intentional unplugging, but also the ability to choose to use devices, online tools, and social media in ways that enrich your life and your family’s life.

What one or two concrete things do you think parents should be doing to create responsible digital citizens?

Get really curious about kids digital world. Focus on consent. One concrete thing you can do from now on (if your kids are in elementary school or older) is start asking before you share their photo on your own social media. This reinforces for your child that her image is her own. It helps her recognize that sharing is a choice and that some things are private. Because you showed her that consideration and modeled some respect for her privacy, she’ll be more likely to ask before she shares a picture of her friend. This teaches good boundaries.

It’s important for a child to know that she can say no. The very act of asking for permission creates a moment for her to stop and think. This pause is very helpful: we could all benefit from it. It teaches empowerment. Asking permission bestows power on your child. Posting a photo is now her choice, not yours. It’s a wonderful gift, and she’ll start to expect the same consideration from her friends. Asking your child for permission before sharing photos of her creates a respectful relationship. Your child will have a better understanding of this complex social exchange because you’ve modeled it. Your empathy for her feelings about privacy will nurture her empathy for her friends and peers.

You also talk quite a bit about mentoring. What does it mean to mentor kids in relation to screen time?

Another important strategy is mentoring more than monitoring. If you do monitor your child’s activities online (using an app for example), be sure to let them know you are doing so. Mentors start from a place of empathy as a path to trust and open communication. Mentors see that kids are very creative and insightful but that they still need models and they still need help navigating this world. Mentors recognize that tech savviness is not the same as wisdom. Our life experience is a critical factor in the equation. Your children may be an excellent gamers, but when they run into conflicts with other players, they may lack the conflict resolution skills needed to solve the conflict. This is where mentoring comes in. Simply monitoring their time on device or what sites they visit doesn’t help them become successful communicators in the digital world. We want to teach kids to do the right thing—not just catch them doing the wrong things. When things do go wrong (and they will), cocreating solutions with kids takes advantage of their creativity and builds trust at the same time.

What led you to write Screenwise?

I speak all over the world at schools and in communities, and I saw parents and educators with tremendous worries and stress about kids in the digital age. I also work with kids frequently and felt that their perspective would be very enlightening for adults! They are much more thoughtful and critical users of technology, games, and social media than many adults realize. And they have insightful observations about our use of devices that can be hard to hear but are very worthwhile! Many schools and parents are focused on harm-prevention as their ultimate goal. We can be much more ambitious and optimistic than that. Digital citizenship is not an inoculation against ever making a mistake online. It is about relationships and how we connect with others, build a positive reputation and contribute to our community.

Kids find a number of challenges along the way as they grow up with technology. I address issues of navigating friendship in the digital age, parent-school relationships (how often should you email the teacher?) and other questions that kids and families face in the digital age. Empathy is the guiding principle of Screenwise. Our empathy for the challenges our kids face in the digital world can be our guide.

What is the most important point that you want to get across in your book?

We can be excellent models for our kids if we are willing to really look at our own relationship with connected life. Mistakes are part of that. Kids are vulnerable to these missteps, but so are we. We can share our own experiences of ways we have dealt with a digital communication with positive or negative results—how did we move forward when it didn’t go well . Pointing out a child’s misstep shouldn’t feel like a “gotcha!” moment. Kids are exploring and learning how to interact, and healthy activities need to be nourished. The reality is that we need to help them, but even more important, we need to teach them how to repair the damage when they have made an error. How can they ask for forgiveness? How can they get it right the next time? How can we model not being reachable all the time so that we can help kids with their connectivity anxiety—their worry that if they are not reachable at all times, that they are being a “bad friend”?

Who would most benefit by reading this book?

Parents who see technology in a positive way but want to mentor their kids, as well as parents who have a more cautious relationship with connectivity and want some reassurance that, with guidance, kids can truly thrive in their digital world. Educators will also find a lot of informative research and examples that illustrate the experiences of both their students and their parents. Growing up in the digital age does have some social and emotional challenges like navigating feeling left out, or figuring out how much to share online. These experiences effect kids at home, in the classroom and beyond. Both parents and educators can help kids be more prepared to make thoughtful decisions about these issues, and to be reslilient in the face of theses challenges.

About THE AUTHOR SPEAKS: Selected authors, in their own words, reveal the story behind the story. Authors are featured thanks to promotional placement by their publishing houses.

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Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and survive) in Their Digital World

Used with permission of author Devorah Heitner
Source: Used with permission of author Devorah Heitner
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