A young lady was recently telling me her woes about a boy she had a crush on. The woe was this: he hadn’t “liked” a picture she posted of them earlier that day. I asked her if his opinion was really that important to her self-esteem. Her reply, “My self-esteem is fine because I have 91 likes on that picture, just not his yet.” Her connection of her self-concept to anything digital made my stomach turn…and as a parent or educator, I’m not exactly sure how to bridge this chasm of communication and values in a way that will be meaningful for the children in front of me.
The truth is, the world our kids are growing up in is different and the challenges of technology and social media are crippling a vast majority of kids, whose brains are not developmentally ready to navigate these rough waters. Our challenges as adults shouldn’t be to fight this digital culture, but to deeply understand why it is so pervasive and what our children need to develop safely and soundly within it. I don’t advocate eliminating it, but I do have a few ideas to consider about the effects of this new culture.
1.) Kids need a break – When we grew up, before iPods, tablets, and cell phones were in the back pocket of nearly everyone older than 10 in our community, we got to take a break. It was called going home from school, playing with different friends, or none at all. When there was drama at school, those few hours between 3:30 and bedtime were an unrealized blessing to cool out, move on, and usually get over it. When our kids are immersed in social media, they don’t get respite from the ongoing conversations about who said or did what. Friends are in each others’ business, sometimes until after bedtime and first thing at breakfast. Kids need a break from each other and from the normal drama of childhood and we need to impose those breaks. Kids also need a break from the blue light waves that stimulate their brains…limit the screen time so brains and emotions can rest.
2.) Kids need monitoring – What we used to call a bully was the kid who cornered you on the playground, behind some play structure where adults couldn’t always see. He wouldn’t act that way in front of adults because he knew it was wrong! With today’s tech, even texts provide a false security of being anonymous which gives more kids the courage to say or do things that they know are wrong, but without the face-to-face encounter their words grow a little more course, insults a little more cutting, audiences exponentially larger. Kids need to be accountable to one another and themselves, which means if we give them the access we need to monitor how they use it, or receive it from others. How we build empathy among our children and show them how to be allies is more important than ever!
3.) Kids need reflection and forgiveness – If I had every ridiculous, embarrassing comment or decision I made as a young person plastered in front of me as a reminder, who knows what kind of angry jerk I could have turned into. John Dewey proposed, “We don’t learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” This is why we laugh at the occasional photo of our break-dancing clothes or Aqua-Net bangs from 1985, but our self-concepts aren’t based on those mistakes. Our kids are documenting every meal and moment of their young existence, not only for the world to hold against them, but immediately capturing every instant of growing up and allowing those mistakes to haunt them day in and out. Kids need the past to be the past, and allow memories to turn into lessons through reflecting on them, not have them posted as permanent reminders of their development.
4.) Kids need to be kids – We have watched academic content be pressed from higher grade levels to earlier ones in the name of rigor and higher standards. Kindergarten is the new first-grade, someone recently told me. PG-13 used to mean what it says, but now it’s basically what we used to call Rated R. Pop culture and technology have made a vacuum that has shortened childhood. Kids need support to be kids, by adults being adults…even if it means we’re not cool or we hear ourselves sounding like our parents. Toys, games, and sports are as important as ever for real relationship and social skill-building.
As parent of a 10 and a 14-year old, and as an educator responsible for 450 other family’s kids, I share the responsibility laid out here and I’ve failed at it often. I may even take on more of a burden as I envision education evolving with more digital tools that make my own advice that much harder to follow. But I see the effects of unfettered technology with young children every day and I know that even if our kids resent us for it now, they will be better adults if we raise them with technology, instead of on it.