Here’s how to raise digitally ethical kids in the 21st century. Photo by FluxFactory/iStock.
For what it’s worth, I’m a techno skeptic. Until four months ago, I owned a flip phone and endured the inconvenience of not being able to receive texts that included apostrophes. Then my four-year-old, Theo, snapped the phone in half, and I upgraded to a smartphone. I’m still wary of it.
But regardless of my relationship with technology, my children are growing up in a screen-saturated world, and I want to help them navigate it. As my grandfather, a World War II veteran, said about nuclear weapons: “We can’t uninvent them. So we have to learn how to live with them.”
Thankfully, I found a book that tackles parenting and technology head-on. In Raising Humans in a Digital World, Diana Graber avoids the usual alarmist tone and illuminates in fastidious detail how we can educate our children to be responsible digital citizens. Graber comes to this subject with a decade’s experience of teaching digital literacy to middle schoolers. She also has a graduate degree in media psychology and social change. Her book is a valuable, optimistic user’s manual to parenting in the 21st century.
Here are five lessons I learned from reading it.
It’s Not Their Fault
It’s clear that kids today spend more time on screens than ever. The generation born between 1995 and 2012 (what psychologist Jean Twenge calls iGen) is the first to enter adolescence with smartphones in their hands.
By now smartphones have become more like an appendage. U.S. teens spend about nine hours each day using screens for entertainment—more time than they spend in school, with their families, or sometimes even sleeping. The average teenager processes 3,700 texts per month. By their own admission, kids are addicted to their phones.
It’s easy to see why. Going online delivers rewards at unpredictable times and tickles the same cerebral pleasure centers as eating, sex, drugs, alcohol, and gambling. Moreover, social-media companies—which generate more money when more people spend more time online—have designed their platforms to be addictive. Snapchat, the social-media app used by most U.S. teens, uses Snapstreaks to encourage users to contact their friends every day. YouTube encourages binge viewing by queuing up another video automatically. Facebook learned that if notifications are presented in the color red, users feel greater urgency to check them.
All of this is hitting our teenagers when their prefrontal cortex is still developing, making them even more vulnerable to risky and addictive behaviors. It’s little wonder that Silicon Valley’s tech insiders are sending their own kids to technology-free schools.
“These kinds of apps are made to be so addictive,” Graber told me. “Every time you get a text message or an Instagram post, you get a hit of dopamine. Kids are toast against that.”
Parents Are Complicit
According to a 2016 Common Sense Media study, adults spend as much time (or more) with screens as their kids do. And yet 78 percent of those parents believe they are good media and technology role models for their children.
Adults are culpable on other levels, too. Parents whine about how much time their children spend on social media, but many of these parents introduced their children to social media when they posted the first pictures of them online, moments after they were born. Before a child turns five, parents will have posted an average of 1,500 images of them on social media without their permission. It makes sense that our kids will obsess over their digital personas when we’ve been crafting those personas for them from day one.
That’s not to mention all the times busy parents—myself included—put their children in front of screens so they can cook dinner, say, or make a phone call. Today, 42 percent of U.S. kids under age eight have their own tablet. Phones have become digital pacifiers for infants, and 77 percent of children under age two use mobile devices every single day. We don’t know much about the effect of this early screen time, and certainly some apps and television programs are educational. But early childhood development happens best through sensory experiences and human engagement in the real, three-dimensional world. And the more parents can facilitate that, the better.
We’re Right to Be Worried
Nowadays when teenagers are doing their homework, they’re almost always simultaneously attending to Instagram, Snapchat, and text messages. Teens today operate in a state of continuous partial attention, toggling back and forth between social media, schoolwork, and online relationships. This distracts them from learning and takes a physical toll, too—all that stooping over a phone has created a chiropractic condition called text neck, which can lead to incremental loss in the curve of the spine.
Social media has been associated with high levels of depression, anxiety, and the fear of missing out. A UK study found that the subtle pressure to garner likes, friends, and followers on social media leads middle school children to become overly dependent on this form of social validation.
Then of course, there’s the concern of stalking, cyberbullying, and sexting. According to a 2018 study by The Journal of the American Medical Association, one in four teens reported having received a sext, and one in seven have sent one.
But when I asked Graber what scared her most while researching this book, she said it isn’t the amount of time children are spending with screens, it is the filter bubble they unwittingly create for themselves. When children give up their private information on social-media apps and through their search history, the internet decides what they want to see and then feeds it back to them. Suddenly, information is less objective.
“I think it’s harmful for our democracy,” Graber said. “It’s going to further alienate us from one another. We want our kids to have access to a broad spectrum of ideas.”
But It’s Not All Bad
Technology has been disrupting our lives forever. Socrates bemoaned the invention of the stylus, fearing it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” People complained about the printing press, the telephone, and blues music. So it’s important not to get lost in the fog of the moment.
According to a UNICEF survey of children in 26 countries, young people are overwhelmingly optimistic about technology’s role in their lives. The Pew Research Center finds that 69 percent of social-media-using teens think that kids are mostly kind to each other online.
Smartphones and social media have allowed children to learn, create, and express themselves like never before. Some of these kids even produce new apps, like Sit With Us, a platform that ensures no kid has to eat lunch alone. Social-media sites that offer private groups, like Facebook, have been credited for fostering safe places for at-risk or marginalized children to connect and share resources. And all the time teens spend socializing online seems to be strengthening their real-world friendships.
Even online gaming has benefits. Minecraft, for example, helps develop spatial reasoning and problem-solving skills. And while excessive technology use may negatively impact children’s well-being, no technology use can also leave children feeling socially isolated. Some researchers speculate that the Goldilocks sweet spot for teens is two hours of smartphone use a day.
“It’s on us parents,” Graber writes in her book, “to help youth discover how to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits technology offers.”
And There’s Something (Actually, A Lot) We Can Do
Cultivating healthy digital habits should start early, Graber writes. She describes age-appropriate on-ramps parents can use to slowly guide children onto the information superhighway. For example, at age two you could Skype with loved ones who live far away. At age five, you could write e-mail together to friends and family. And at age 11, you could help them do school research online. These activities will teach your children that technology is best used to learn, connect, and create.
It’s critical to be a good digital role model for your children, too. Try to be aware of your own screen use, and when you pull out your phone in front of your kids, explain what you’re doing. (When forced to articulate a reason, you may find that you don’t need to use it after all.) Designate tech-free times, such as dinner and driving, and tech-free areas of the house, such as bedrooms.
Graber asks her seventh-grade students to commit to a 24-hour technology fast. At first most students don’t think they can do it. But when they do, they often remember that they enjoy doing things like going outside and riding their bike. Graber encourages parents to try this digital cleanse, too. Use the time to compose a list with your children of 100 nonscreen activities. Post the list on the fridge, and consult it when you feel the pull of your devices.
Graber also recommends taking the age requirements for social-media sites seriously. There are developmental reasons that children must be 13 before joining social media (not to mention the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which empowers parents with authority). A growing movement called Wait Until 8th urges parents to wait until eighth grade before giving their kids a smartphone. (To stay in touch with your 11-year-old, you can give them a flip phone.) By age 13, they’ll be wiser about what they post and how it will affect them and others. With any luck, they will also have cultivated the qualities of good online and off-line citizenship: honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility, and courage.
“These skills can’t be taught overnight,” Graber writes. “It will take time and patience to teach your kids how to manage, rather than avoid, the digital world’s complexities.”