Your Child’s Guide to the Digital World: This Year’s McMillan Lecture

Technology bring change to life at an ever-increasing pace. Often, the first connected are teenagers. To them, the latest hardware and software can become essential and powerful tools – as well as major distractions and sources of stress.

It’s easy to see why so many parents vacillate between wanting to enforce NSA-type surveillance over what their children watch and do in the digital world, and wanting to throw up their hands and leave teens symbolically and literally “to their own devices.”

Dr. Devorah Heitner, Ph.D., an expert on young people’s relationship with digital media and technology, has studied the anxiety technology brings to children and adults. In order to help grown-ups better understand and manage the use of personal technology in the lives of children, she wrote “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World.”

In the book, Dr. Heitner identifies practical ways parents can provide guidance in this new virtual territory inhabited by their “wired” youth. She describes how adults can cultivate a culture of empathy and social and emotional literacy.

Dr. Heitner will discuss this work in detail Monday, April 23 at The Grosse Pointe Academy. Details of the presentation, free and open to the public, are below.

Developing a Dialogue

As with driving the family car, adults should not hand over a digital device to their children and say, “You are on your own. Navigate this.” She encourages parents to develop a dialogue about technology with their children to build a basis for understanding and guiding them through the digital world.

Dr. Heitner suggests that the first stage in building a dialogue between parents and teenagers comes through texting – sending short messages via smart phones and computers. Young people often need help in interpreting what to text and what not to text. When is it appropriate to text? How often? What is the appropriate response time? Do I need to respond to talk and do Ineed to respond immediately?

Parents’ real world experiences can help reduce stress in young people who are new at establishing personal boundaries online. Parents should consider monitoring their texting at first, then review the texts together with children. Providing observations on the communication also provides an opportunity for a parent to discover how a particular message makes a child feel.

Guide Them Through the Digital World

While parents cannot eliminate the impact of technology on the lives of their children, Dr. Heitner believes parents can help their children understand how to make digital technology a tool they can use as they grow and go through life.

Dr. Heitner believes that we can help each other – parents and teens – to learn to navigate their digital world. It might start with guidance on accessibility and setting personal limits. We have all received a text during dinner or our favorite Netflix show. Do we have to respond? If adults are unclear, imagine how teenagers feel.

Other boundary issues on which adults can provide guidance include what to share and with whom to share personal information. This can be a source for much conflict – and frankly stress – for teens.

The nuances parents understand also can make a case for modeling good behavior too. Thus, we need to ask our teens for permission to share their news and photos online.

Finally, we need to guide teenagers and children on how best to manage technology and not let it become a distraction. Again, we can model by creating tech-free spaces and times in your home.

Be Curious, Tech Savvy Parents

Parents should be curious about what their kids are posting and see it as a way to better understand their child’s world. Teenagers’ phones and computers are filled with photographs, of themselves, each other, their lives, and downloaded from almost everywhere in the world.

This proliferation of photos can be difficult for parents to understand, but for this generation, it’s their way of remembering and sharing a moment. Children often find an image frees them to be literate in ways that are difficult through text messaging.

Adults should let their children see the real power of using new technology. For example: Post about a neighbor who is ill and create a sign up for meal deliveries. Crowd fund for a new project. Pass the word about volunteer opportunities or that your teen is looking for babysitting jobs and dog walking gigs.

Parents also need to be know the import of modeling behavior for children. Ask them, “What is your least favorite tech habit I have?” Through discussion of their answer, parents can help children understand parents’ perspectives.

Discussing the ways digital technology impacts their lives can help children see how using their own technology can make a positive and lasting impact on the lives of others. Through what they observe and share, they can find they canharness the power of technology to see what matters, to do good things, and to change the world for the better.

They Have the Technology, You Have the Wisdom

While parents may be learning to navigate the tech world themselves, they should be confident that answers to their children’s challenges are often rooted in an understanding of human connections and inter-personal relationships.

Young people establish, maintain and break relationships in the virtual world. For them, these relationships can hold the same, if not more, import as those in real-life. Parents, however, can draw on their own experience gained over decades and guide young people as they develop understanding – and empathy for the positions of others.

Dr. Devorah Heitner’s presentation takes place at 7 p.m. Monday, April 23 in the Tracy Field House at The Grosse Pointe Academy. It is part of the William Charles McMillan III Lecture Series. The program is free of charge and open to the public of all communities. Copies of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World will be available for purchase and signing by the author.