Last week, I participated in a Screenagers panel at one of our district’s middle schools. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is an hour-long documentary about the impact of screentime on child and adolescent development: social, behavioral, and cognitive. If I had to sum up the film’s argument in a single sentence, I believe it was telling parents to “beware screentime,” because excessive device use can lead to addictive, antisocial, and academically deleterious outcomes.
The film’s screening for a group of 300 of our parents was well-timed for me, both as an educator and as a new parent. As an educator, I have been thinking a lot about how to embed curriculum that will engage students in critical conversations about their online actions and identities, how they curate and develop those identities, and how they keep their data safe from predators, hackers, and others who might do them harm online — or, frighteningly, in “real life,” as a result of their online actions. As a new parent whose toddler is already intrigued by screens, I wondered how exposure to screens, and especially how my own use (overuse?) of screens might impact my daughter’s development, and I considered ways to set limits on my own device use in order to set a positive example for her.
I could wax poetic on the reflections this has sparked for me as a parent, but for this post, I want to focus mostly on the role of educators when it comes to keeping digital-age kids safe online.
First, I think it’s important to understand that kids like screens because screens provide social connection. As contradictory as this may seem to adults who have watched groups of teens sit in a circle staring at their phones, it rests at the core of why teens and pre-teens love tech. The film, and the panel of teenagers that I had the honor of sitting alongside after the film, made the point that digital devices help them feel connected. To their friends. To the lives and experiences of others. Even to their far-flung families. When today’s 3rd and 4th graders begin asking their parents for phones, it is so they can feel connected.
In this effort to feel connected, kids sign up for Instagram or Snapchat accounts. They follow celebrities on Twitter. They snap selfies and post pictures of themselves all over the Internet. They harass and bully one another. They naturally, and concerningly, use things like “likes” and “follows” as tangible evidence that their social circle of peers approves of them. Natural, because other types of social interaction provide no such concrete data. Concerning, because one’s self-worth should not be measured by a tally of “likes” on Instagram.
Enter every parent’s and educator’s fear about today’s kids and students: they will turn to these ephemeral spaces for validation (or devastation), and because the spaces are in so many ways hidden from our view, we will not be able to step in to protect, intervene, or educate before something terrible happens.
I have firmly believed, since my first day of teaching, that one of the major roles of education in our society is to develop decent citizens. Quality humans. As simply as I can put it: Education Exists to Make Good People. People who can invent, build, create, salvage, save, scrutinize, analyze, and interrogate. People who can collaborate, inspire, and innovate.
And today’s good people have to do all of that in work, academic, and social worlds that are both-and:
- Both on a screen and face-to-face.
- Both global and local.
- Both digital and analog.
- Both connected and disconnected.
A parent asked me an excellent question at the end of the film. She apologized for “putting me on the spot” later, but she shouldn’t have, because it’s one of those questions I wish people asked me more often. She asked:
In light of all this research about the negative impact of screens and screentime on kids, why the push in the schools for more access to things like laptops and 1:1 devices?
My inadequate response, since I had very little time to respond:
It’s incredibly difficult to teach students how to make smart decisions with digital devices if they don’t have access to digital devices in school.
The better response I would have provided, given more time: It’s also difficult to teach them how to be safe online, how to protect their data and privacy, if they do not have dedicated time in the curriculum and dedicated teachers who can help them understand things like:
How the Internet works (and what, exactly, the Internet is).
What a digital footprint is, and how to manage yours. This seems like an easy enough thing to teach, but it’s not. Could you explain to a child:
- How companies work with the Internet to provide services to consumers, and the data they collect in order to provide those services (have you ever signed up for a Snapchat account? They stop just short of asking for your third cousin’s middle name)?
- How “third-party companies” gain access to data you’ve shared with other companies, and how they are able and allowed to use that information about you?
- How Amazon knows you’d like to buy a bike?
- How Google knows you’re in Massachusetts?
- How Twitter knows who you might know and want to follow?
- The role of big data in developing and maintaining your digital footprint?
What cloud computing is. Do you know?
What computers and machines can do. What they can’t do. And how humans can use them to do things we can’t do.
When to use a device to talk to someone. When not to. How to use a device to talk to someone. How you talk to someone differently on a device than you do in “real life.” How to be kind to someone when you talk to them with a device. How to use a device to talk to someone in order to get something done (digital collaboration). How to combine devices with analog strategies to get things done. This list only gets longer.
What it is safe and ethical to (not) do on a computer. Again, one of those “easy things to teach,” right? You just make sure kids know the “never” list:
- Never give anyone your address
- Never give anyone your phone number
- Never give anyone your full name
- Never agree to meet up with someone
- Never talk to strangers
- Never open an email from someone you don’t know
…but have you noticed that this list of “nevers” is similar to the nevers we heard as kids in the 80s? #5 basically covers it, right? Wrong. Because in this day and age, “knowing” someone is not cut-and-dry. Running into strangers online is easier than running into them in a crowded shopping mall. And address, phone number, and name aren’t the only data points someone can use to hack into your accounts or local devices and run amok. Furthermore, this list of nevers doesn’t even touch ethical computing: fair use, copyright, and intellectual property is a different game in the digital age.
Some may argue that parents can have these conversations with their kids, but I think that relying on this serves to widen the digital divide and to perpetuate issues that have risen to the surface in recent years as kids are handed cell phones as early as 3rd grade.
Some parents — the ones who majored in computer science — are tech-savvy enough to have regular conversations about all of these things with their kids. But most are not. This is not a commentary on today’s parents, it’s just the reality of a world in which technology changes faster than we can blink. We grew up playing with Legos and VTech “computers.” Handheld Nintendo Gameboys. Atari. CD players. Dial-up. Our kids’ world is different. Teaching them how to be safe, aware, and strategic in it is difficult.
Most (but again, not all) parents ARE able to set boundaries that the film discussed: have a device curfew. Require access to your child’s accounts. Keep technology in a common space, and require that it be used in common spaces, not in isolated areas like bedrooms. Talk to kids about the concerns you have about their technology use, and about how they think it impacts them socially or academically. Here are a few other ideas. However, implementation of these strategies requires parental presence, which is not always a given depending upon work schedules.
All parents can ask their child’s school what they are doing to educate students about computing, the Internet, keeping information safe online, engaging in ethical online practices, and connecting with others positively, in ways that don’t disconnect them from the “real world.”