Digital Days: Keeping Children and Teens Safe and Healthy
This summer, in particular, the activities our children, ‘tweens, and teens engage in, will differ from summers of the past. Sleep away and sports camps, internships, and jobs are canceled, indefinitely postponed, or will be approached in a socially distant kind-of-way. Spending long afternoons at the public pool, selling homemade lemonade, and luxuriating in air-conditioned movie matinees on hot summer days are also affected. Kids and teens may need to find alternatives to many summer activities they are accustomed to engaging in.
When education and work moved to distance learning, our relationships with digital devices also fundamentally changed. The Internet has become our lifeline to the many activities previously taken for granted—whether it is putting in a day’s work “at the office,” obtaining groceries, or attending family reunions. Our children now are “on tech” longer each day, perhaps significantly more than we were comfortable with or allowed during #PreCovid19.
Digital Literacy Education
According to the American Library Association, “digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” (Heitin, 2016) Being digitally literate requires us to know how to use and interact with technology in safe, healthy, and responsible ways. We want our children to make the right choices when using technology, and understand both the power of technology and the responsibilities we all have to ourselves, our communities, and our world when accessing and using technology. Critical thinking is the key.
During the school year at McLean School, we incorporate classroom lessons, activities, and discussions that support digital literacy on topics such as media balance, understanding digital footprints, Web privacy, and media literacy. We use resources such as Common Sense Education, News Literacy Project, and KQED’s Above the Noise and strive to empower students to make good media choices to become informed citizens. Sample lessons include teaching Lower School students about device-free moments, having Middle School students create plans for a media-balanced day, and exploring misinformation with Upper School students. We understand that digital literacy is a skill that is continuously evolving and work to stay current and keep our students informed and safe.
Foundations and Beginnings
Digital citizenship skills can and should begin as early as the preschool years, especially since children see adults using media and technology everywhere. Many have access to devices and screens right from the cradle. When my children were in elementary school, I went to see The Social Network, a film about the early days of FaceBook. I had my own ‘aha’ moment where I vowed to be proactive in teaching my kids to be digitally literate and use technology in ways that do not harm others. I worked to educate myself and have conversations with them about digital literacy topics such as etiquette, safety, use, and privacy as appropriate to their age and development.
Learning Opportunities at Home
The idea of educating children to be good digital citizens can seem overwhelming, but there are simple things parents can do to extend what children learn at school. Below are tips to help you use this time to learn how to keep children and teens digitally secure.
- Model the behaviors you want to see. Children will follow what parents do and not what they say. This is a critical way to support digital literacy. Show them what good tech habits look like.
- Educate yourself. There are plenty of resources, books, websites, and articles that help parents learn about technology, children and teens—what are the trends, what they are using, how to use the tools and devices, what they may be hiding from their parents, how to work settings, and how to keep them safe. For parents in 2020, there’s no excuse for not learning about the tech your kids are using. Begin by visiting a site such as Common Sense Media to get helpful advice. Next, you might want to find parent outreach programs, or utilize your child’s school as a resource.
- Teach children about technology—start early and continue through the ‘tween and teen years. It’s easier to instill values and provide guidance to younger children. Altogether banning the use of technology until they are 13 will not help set the groundwork for introducing digital literacy skills. However, even if parents have not done anything up to now, it’s never too late to start. Begin by asking them to teach you what they know.
- Keep the conversations going. Have engaging discussions about technology and digital citizenship. Discuss digitally related news or even controversial tweets as appropriate. Ask your children to teach you about social media and tech trends that you may not fully understand, and then, take time to learn to play video games and explore sites together.
- Ask questions that open up a dialogue between you and your child. No one likes to be accused of something or be put on the spot. To begin the conversation, try asking, “What if?” Asking “What would you do if you knew your friend was visiting sites that were inappropriate?” will produce more meaningful conversations than, “Are you looking at inappropriate sites?” (Eisenmann, 2020)
- Teach your children to question the media they are consuming. Share a news story or a photo found on Twitter, and ask: “Do you think this is legit?” “How can we find out?” The key ideas to explore are who is writing or creating the media, what the evidence is that supports it, and what do other websites, organizations, or news agencies say about it. (Home|Civic Online Reasoning, 2020)
- Engage your family in setting rules together. Share your values, expectations, and concerns with your children and together identify realistic family rules focused on safety and balance.
- Learn about social media and game settings. Find out what the tech can do. Are your kids chatting on their gaming devices? Check the contact list to see if you need to intervene. Is GPS turned on? Some don’t fully realize that settings on Instagram and Snapchat can identify their location to anyone connected to their page. Help them learn to uncheck and learn about other settings that may unknowingly share private information.
- Accept that mistakes still happen. Even if you have had many conversations with your children about appropriate and inappropriate uses of devices and technology, there may be a time when you will say, “You did what?!” Discuss the issue of concern, whether it’s sharing account information with friends or staying on a group chat that turns bad, and use it as a learning opportunity for both you and your child. Help them learn from their mistake, come up with a solution, make amends, and move on.
- Plan plenty of device-free family moments. Use this opportunity to spend time working on crafts together, playing board games, hiking in the park, and having excellent family dinner conversations. Creating time away from technology helps us be more connected to one another and provides opportunities for meaningful conversation.
In conclusion, helping children and teens develop life-long digital literacy skills and habits may seem daunting at first, but just keep talking to them. By taking small steps to educate yourself, finding the resources you need, having family conversations, and creating time to build relationships, you can support them in being safe, wise, and smart media consumers.
Fincher, D. (Director). (2010). The Social Network [Film]. Sony Pictures Releasing.
Heitin, L. (2016). What Is Digital Literacy? Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/11/09/what-is-digital-literacy.html
Online Predators: What You Need To Know Today. (2020, April 7). Beau Biden Foundation; Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children. https://www.beaubidenfoundation.org/onlinepredators/
– Ruta Puskorius, Learning Commons Manager and Digital Literacy Coordinator