By Chris Thinnes
October 24, 2013
As a junior high school administrator 10 years ago, it was easy to separate children’s lives at school from the lives they led at home, and the relationships they developed in ‘real life’ from the relationships they developed ‘online.’ Five years ago, it was clearer to all of us that behaviors off-campus were affecting relationships on campus, and vice-versa, both for well and for ill — and that social interactions rooted in the ‘virtual world’ grew branches, stems, and leaves in the community of students on campus.
Nowadays, it would be foolish for a teacher or a school leader to suggest that ‘virtual’ interactions are any less ‘real’ to children than the friendships we see flourish or, occasionally, wither inside or outside our classrooms. At the end of the day, ‘citizenship’ and ‘digital citizenship’ are organically and inextricably intertwined in the experience of our school-aged children — and it is only those of us, as educators and/or as parents who are old enough to have had to ‘adapt,’ who think of our own social lives otherwise.
Over time, parents — myself included — have never really had inhibitions about starting or sustaining open, clear, and purposeful conversations with their children about their expectations for their children’s behavior in the classroom, on the playground, at a friend’s house, or at the dinner table. But they have never been as comfortable or confident — even now — fostering those conversations about their children’s interactions online.
Sometimes this is because parents don’t fully understand the nature, variety, depth, or implications of those interactions; sometimes this is because parents don’t recognize the very healthy learning opportunities available to children in those interactions; and sometimes this is simply because of their own limited proficiency with technology.
In every case, though, this discomfort follows from the fact that we haven’t had the experience of growing up as a child in a digital world. In the difference between our own and our children’s childhoods lies our discomfort with some of the most important conversations we need to have with our children.
I find the rampant misconception baffling (among educators, among parents, and sometimes in my own attitudes as well) that in order to be helpful to children, we need to be ‘experts’ in a subject matter, or to have had an identical experience. The goal of these conversations about digital citizenship is not to ‘front’ as a video gamer or software designer; you don’t need a degree in Computer Engineering, or the slightest interest in subscribing to Wired.
The goal of these conversations is to help your child to identify and to make good decisions. You do that every day in their ‘real’ lives — and these matters are no less ‘real’ than any others for them.
In our recent ‘Town Halls for Parents and Guardians,’ we explored two prompts in the contexts of a ‘Question Formulation Technique’ exercise, and a follow-up conversation to develop shared criteria and strategies to make better decisions as parents. These prompts were:
A. Parents create an environment and climate that supports learning at home;
B. Parents strive to balance structure/order with independence/resilience at home.
Though each of these was meant to represent a balance that parents are trying to sustain with reference both to our children’s learning, and their lives (if there is any such distinction to be made), I think these also serve as great focal points for our decisions about how to support our children’s ‘digital citizenship’ with intentional conversations, clear expectations, and open dialogue at home.
I don’t get to wear a sash as ‘Model Parent’ in this particular pageant — my son was raised more on South Park and Family Guy than on Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow; need I say more? — but I can share with you the most valuable tips I’ve inherited from other parents who have successfully framed these kinds of conversations at home.
Each of these I’ve tried to follow (to the best of my ability, but not always successfully) as a fellow traveler on this learning journey as the parent of a digital citizen:
1. Social Interactions in Social Spaces
Under no circumstance should 12-and-unders be allowed or encouraged to interact online in the privacy of their rooms: all connected devices should be used in ‘public’ spaces. This includes computers, tablets, and phones. In face-to-face interactions with their peers, children can rely on tone, context, body language, and other nonverbal indicators of a classmate’s intent. Behind a closed door, children this age should not be expected fully to understand or to filter some of their own or their friends’ comments.
Though their screen’s visibility to you serves as a crude substitute, your own proximity to your children can help them resist certain impulses, or invite a conversation about a decision with which they might be wrestling. Ideally you should establish this dynamic before a device is introduced: the happy accident of my wife’s clear thinking when my son was an infant, has normalized this condition for a 15 year old who now doesn’t even ask to take his computer into his room.
2. Support Versus Surveillance
Children need coaches and role models, not wardens or secret agents, to learn how to make better decisions. Our goal is not to ‘catch’ a bad decision, but to ‘coach’ a good one. The playing field needs clear boundaries, and clear rules, in order for children to play freely — but not every foul should get a player ejected from the game.
Many parents install Safe Eyes or some other such filtering and security software, but relatively few parents openly discuss this with their children. When my son was younger, that conversation about what I was installing, and why, was one of the most powerful conversations about digital citizenship we’ve ever had. We explored every one of the software’s settings together, and had a thorough conversation about what he thought he was ready to do without supervision, ‘where’ he thought he was ready to ‘go,’ and who he thought he was ready to join in his online travels. I got to listen, to learn, and in a few cases strongly to push back — with the shared goal of trying to decide together, through open dialogue, how we could set goals for his developing independence in the months to come.
3. You Bought It; You Own It
One of the great strategic suggestions I’ve ever heard — at which I have sometimes failed, and with which I wish you better luck — is to establish a very clear understanding in the home about who owns the device, and who’s borrowing it. What are the terms of the agreement? What is acceptable use? The value of this dynamic is particularly evident when something goes wrong. (By the way: something will go ‘wrong.’ It should. That, like every learning opportunity, is a good thing.) In such cases, it is much simpler and more effective to withhold the privilege of borrowing a device, than to ‘repossess’ a device a child thinks s/he ‘owns.’
4. Not Every Feeling is a Fact
Valuable learning experiences are always attended by some measure of discomfort: it should never be so slight as to be completely comfortable, nor so overwhelming as to paralyze. In the sphere of social networking, this is often hard to gauge. To the point: when a child experiences a hurt feeling, it does not necessarily mean s/he has been ‘cyberbullied.’ Sometimes s/he has simply been disappointed or misunderstood.
Your child will also say things, on the playground or online, that have a hurtful impact well beyond her or his intent. These are coincidental but wondrous opportunities to foster conversations about intent, impact, respect, and inclusion that are every bit as valuable — and perhaps more valuable because of their relationship to an authentic experience in your child’s life — than more abstract conversations children experience as ‘lectures.’
I am certain, for example, that the most impactful conversations I’ve had with my son in the last year — about race, class, privilege, and cultural competence — have followed directly on the heels of ill-considered comments he and his classmates have posted on Facebook, and which he has confided in me.
I could go on and on — maybe I already have? — but I’m just as eager to learn from your experience and wisdom as I am to share my own impressions. What are some of the obstacles and opportunities you’ve discovered at home as you support your children’s digital citizenship? What are some of the goals you’ve set? What does an effective and open conversation with your child look like, and sound like? To what resources, other than those Jason Moore and I have compiled below, have you turned for insight or support on parenting digital citizens?
- Search the Digital Citizenship Week Hashtag (#DigCitWk) on Twitter: http://ow.ly/q1lqU
- Presentations by educators George Couros, http://ow.ly/pZWkv and Grant Ward, http://ow.ly/pZW1s
- Interactive module on “Parents in the 21st Century,” http://ow.ly/pZW7m
- Parent resources on ‘Digizen,’ http://ow.ly/pZWbM
- ”Digital Citizen Tips for Teens and Parents” from Common Sense Media, http://ow.ly/pZWeI
- ”Rules of the Road for Parents in a Digital Age” from Common Sense Media, http://ow.ly/pZWhm
- “How to Talk About Life Online” from Edutopia, http://edut.to/17KBB2O
- “Common Sense Tips for Digital Generation Parents,” also from Edutopia, http://edut.to/RMdTQ2
- “Family Media Agreements” from Common Sense Media http://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/fma_all.pdf
- “The Fine Line Between Monitoring Your Kids and Spying,” Mashable.com, http://on.mash.to/TBp61N