This Digital Life
Recently, our family traveled internationally. My kids left the country for the first time, a fantastic experience that allowed them to see the world from an alternative perspective, hear the business of daily life conducted in a different language, and, because we didn’t purchase international data plans for our phones, interact rather more than usual with their father and me. This unanticipated benefit revealed how habitually we tend to peek at email and other information served up on our little handheld devices. This is a real boon, as it untethers us from our desks, but it also chips away at sustained interactions with our kids—not to mention each other and the world around us—in ways of which I had not been particularly thoughtful.
Now that we’re back in Providence with data flowing freely, I’m incorporating aspects of lessons learned from our analog week to our daily lives. After absorbing the insight my inadvertent or intentional uses of interactive technology teach my kids about the role and value of technologically mediated communication, I’m committed to spending far less time and attention monitoring messages while we’re together. This, of course, increases my chances of thinking an uninterrupted thought, and one of those thoughts prompted me to wonder about the ways family members can learn from each other about our increasingly digital lives.
To get my head around this issue, I connected with local experts Trevor O’Driscoll, Wheeler Middle School’s dean and creator of Wheeler Middle School’s parent technology handbook, Anisa Raoof, founder and publisher of Kidoinfo.com, and David Niguidula, educational technology researcher and founder of Ideas Consulting. In addition to their professional perspectives, they live what they learn: O’Driscoll, Raoof, and Niguidula are parents of kids ranging in age from preschool to college. Here are some of the takeaways:
According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 93 percent of children in the United States between the ages of 12 and 17 are online, and that online connection increasingly comes from any form of technology that has a screen. The days of using a desktop or laptop to get online are long past. For many parents and educators, this ubiquity of social media may make us feel like we’re at the fabulous hub of technological innovation—as Anisa Raoof put it, like “kids in a candy store.”
While this newly digital life feels tempting to many adults, it’s the native habitat of our kids. Many adults formed interpersonal and work habits without the current presence of ever-present connectivity. Our kids are digital natives who can help us understand our world now, and in turn often need help understanding how to navigate it. Parents and teachers can help by “modeling good behavior,” says Raoof. “As parents we need to set boundaries for ourselves. What messages am I sending to them if I behave as if it’s okay to be online all the time? It’s extremely important to have boundaries that apply to everyone in the family.” The analogy of teaching kids about building lifelong healthy nutritional habits applies.
|Henry and R2D2 IRL|
Online access made visible to parents also allows us to coach our kids to make good decisions about their technologically mediated interactions. The best filter, Trevor O’Driscoll suggests, is between a kid’s own ears rather than site blocking software, and that filter is best installed through family conversations. “First of all,” says O’Driscoll, “You have to know what kids are expected to do and want to do with technology. Adults in kids’ lives have to stay up to date and everyone needs to keep talking. If we never have the conversations with kids, then they have no guidelines. If your decision is to ban online access or install site blocking programs, that will backfire, because when you release them into the wild, which will happen sooner or later, they will have no concept about how to filter any of this independently.”
David Niguidula offers another useful analogy, suggesting that teaching kids about how to conduct healthy online lives is similar to teaching children to be safe drivers. He explains, “You’re in control of a machine that is very cool and gets you to places you want to go. The skills and understanding about how to work that machine doesn’t come automatically; adults need to teach levels of safety and consciousness. We want kids to have the ability and benefits, and that requires training and conversations about behavior and an awareness not only of your own actions bout also about what everyone else could do.”
Your family may already have agreements and ongoing conversations about your online lives. If your family is more like mine and could use some help thinking more coherently about the benefits and possible pitfalls of online interactions, here are a couple of resources: check out Common Sense Media at www.commonsensemedia.org and the Family Online Safety Institute at www.fosi.org. In whatever way makes sense, you do take the time to talk with the people in your life about how to be smart digital citizens.