Digital technologies have changed the way we live and communicate as a dazzling array of electronic tools has become integrated into our daily lives. Children and youth today spend more time tethered to technology than any other activity in their waking hours. It is transforming the way that they learn, share, connect and grow.
We’ve written before about the false choice between a “lock down” and “hands off” approach to technology. The debate about whether technology is “good” or “bad” for our kids misses the most important part of the conversation: What is it that our children needs to thrive?
Start with these three ingredients:
1. Digital Participation
Confiscating all your child’s digital entertainment until she’s twenty-five might keep her from uploading inappropriate pictures to Facebook, but it won’t help her practice the skills she need to navigate the complex challenges of living in a connected world.
For the last twenty years, there has been a lot of attention paid to the digital divide based on access. Some kids were wired while too many others lacked a connection. While there is still a ways to go, this gap has closed dramatically in the last decade. However, a new digital divide is now emerging based on how young people are using these tools. University of California’s Mimi Ito describes it as an opportunity gap. Some young people have the extra support, guidance, and resources to use technology in healthy ways that advance their academic and personal goals. Others are just hanging out online, wasting time. Senior researcher at Microsoft, Dana Boyd, reminds us “Access is not a panacea. Not only does it not solve problems, it mirrors and magnifies existing problems we’ve been ignoring.”
In other words, getting digital tools in or out of our children’s hands is just the beginning of the journey. Now our children need support and guidance to learn how to use them. As you consider strategies for helping your child cross the digital divide, don't forget to honor their strengths. Young people are creative, energetic, and capable of incredible integrity and courage. Harness their passion and energy for digital technology and direct it towards online learning, creative work, media literacy, and community engagement.
- Enjoy media together. Ask your child questions about what they are interested in, where they hang out online, and what they like about it.
- Talk with your child about the images, messages, and stories they are hearing online and in the media.
- Avoid talking about technology as if it is a mindless waste of time. Help your child use online resources to explore her interests and strengthen skills.
- Connect your teens with community media organizations. Many have youth programs where young people can build both digital literacies and leadership skills.
- Find out if your child’s school is working on any school climate initiatives and see if they want to get involved. Youth-led campaigns that incorporate new media are exciting and impressive.
- Does your teen have strong opinions about a local issue around Internet safety or online learning? Encourage them to write an Op-Ed or a Letter to the Editor.
2. Digital Citizenship
Digital citizenship is a new term with an evolving definition. Some use it expansively to include the themes of participation, safety, and privacy. We like to think of digital citizenship as the habit of mind that guides the way that we treat one another online. It is the set of social emotional skills that enable us to be good to one another including being caring, empathetic, responsible, and courageous. It is the emotional and moral compass that leads our kids to talk to a trusted adult if they see something that makes them feel uneasy online or to stand up for another kid who is being bullied.
Becoming a good digital citizen doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over time as our kids experience mini-failures and mistakes, as they reflect on the impact of their actions on others, and as they practice kindness in both the virtual and real worlds.
- Start with a conversation. Talk about what good digital citizenship looks like. Communicate clear expectations and consequences around cyberbullying and cruelty.
- Don’t “spy” on your kids’ every move. Instead, use parental controls openly to ensure that your child is earning digital privileges by choosing caring and responsible behavior.
- Expect mistakes. Make sure that Internet "incidents" are an opportunity to communicate and reflect, not a platform for endless lectures.
- Recognize when your child is being an upstanding digital citizen. Hold a mirror up to their caring and respectful behavior.
3. Digital Discipline
The previous two ingredients involve maximizing the benefits of technology when it is powered on. A skill that will only grow in importance in the next decade is the capacity to know when to power off. Concern about focus and attention, chronic multi-tasking, decline of real-world social skills, and "cyber-addiction" is growing and warranted.
To be fair, it isn’t only our kids who are having a hard time unplugging. A friend’s three-year-old staged an intervention on him a couple of years ago. She put her chubby little fingers over the top of his smart phone during dinner and said “Daddy, please put that away I’m trying to talk to you!” Our friend knew he had a problem when he snuck into the bathroom ten minutes later to check his email.
"Digital Discipline" is a term we coined to describe the set of skills, behaviors, and practices that enable us to unplug when we need to. Twenty-first century communities, be they business, academic, or family, are not only going to need digital innovators and digital citizens, they are going to need people who know when to put their digital devices away to focus, recharge, and connect with one another.
- Cut down on the multi-tasking and reduce digital distractions.
- Carve out screen free times to connect. Meal times and short car rides might be a good time for this.
- Set a digital curfew at night and stick with it.
- Encourage your kids to work out conflict face-to-face. Start with siblings! Help coach them on the words they might use.
- Model good communication and don't duck the hard conversations. Texting is a great way to stay connected but if something is important make sure you follow up face-to-face.
Those are the ingredients. You craft the recipe.
At the end of the day, we know that technology skills are going to be key to our kids’ 21st century success. We also know that age-old skills like deep focus, concentration, quiet reflection, and good communication are also essential. This means that kids need more than access to technology. They also need opportunities to practice digital participation, digital citizenship and digital discipline.
We look forward to the many digital innovations that are headed our way in the years to come. Each technological innovation will bring its own set of benefits and challenges. Focusing on nurturing these 3 ingredients will go a long way towards ensuring that your child will successfully navigate them.