In the last few years, since founding Raising Digital Natives, I’ve been working with parents, teachers and students at schools around the country. I was asked to work with a large group of students a few years ago, and I called in a trusted colleague, Karen Jacobson, a school counselor with lots of great experience counseling kids around digital age challenges with peers to collaborate.
After the workshop, we discussed the preponderance of curricula available to educators that focus on Internet Safety, but don’t delve into the identify-focused, friendship-focused territory that we are especially interested. What is the difference between cyber-bullying and just plain mean behavior? How should kids deal with witnessing their own exclusion in social media? How can kids repair when they make mistakes? How can they avoid conflicts when texting? We decided that we should write a curriculum to share our ideas and exercises that focus on the social/emotional side of growing up in the digital world. Youthlight Press released our curriculum this spring! We’ll be speaking about it at a couple of upcoming conferences. My favorite thing to do with the curriculum is visit a school, lead the students in some of the lessons with counselors, advisors or other mentors sitting in, and then make a plan with those mentors for the work to continue.
We are delighted that Marti Weston, an expert in educational technology integration and digital citizenship has reviewed our curriculum in her blog Media, Tech, Parenting!
Weston writes: “With its flexibility and its focus on adults as connected world coaches and mentors (not lecturers), Connecting Wisely stands head and shoulders above many other curricula in this category.”
As an experienced educator, Weston makes a case for our curriculum to be integrated into curriculum, as opposed to being taught separately. This is exactly our intention with the curriculum. These values and ideas can be woven into both school and extra-curricular activities and should not be segregated into an “Internet Safety” or “Digital Citizenship” silo.
Weston concludes: “If a goal is to make it clear to today’s digital natives that we expect them to carry out positive and respectful values wherever they work and play, we need to take the time to develop a strategy that reinforces those values everywhere they work and play. Connecting Wisely in the Digital Ageis a book and a tool to help us get started.”
In my last post, I talked about “app development” workshops that I do with 4th–7th graders to illuminate the issues that technology introduces into our lives. We start by identifying a common problem, then trying to solve the problem with a designed solution.
We talked about apps to help with impatience and persistence with regard to text messaging, group chat dynamics, and setting boundaries in kids’ use of technology. You can read the whole article here: Kids Design an App.
In the course of these workshops, the kids went beyond peer-to-peer issues. Every single kid had stories about their parents not really hearing them when they are talking, texting while they are driving, or having their kids text for them so they could drive. Some kids reported resorting to hiding their parents’ phones while they are cooking or otherwise distracted so that they can talk with them. Other kids told stories of having to repeat entire stories about their day as parents drive, text, and talk with their kids. Hearing this made me never want to risk a pedestrian crossing again!
The kids are way ahead—and again, they came up with some great solutions. I have to warn you, though. As a parent myself, these were somewhat guilt inducing, and caused me to be very self-aware. It’s a good thing, ultimately, but I can’t say that it was easy. You may have the same reactions, so there’s my disclaimer up front!
Their biggest concerns were around attention and protection, which is not surprising for this age group. Let’s look at the issues, and the solutions that the kids designed:
Kids understand that smartphone technology—and the connection that comes with it—makes demands on our attention. How many times have you seen a parent focused on the “second screen” while a child tries to get his/her attention? It’s easy to spot when it’s another parent, but be honest—have you done this before? As mindful as I try to be, I know that I am guilty at times. And this is a big issue for kids.
The most common solution to this issue that the kids “designed” was a voice recognition app that temporarily disables the parent’s phone if the child is speaking in the same space. If your child is speaking in proximity to you, it disables texting, social media, and phone calls. If you are talking on the phone, it gives you an indication to end the call.
Kids recognized that it wasn’t always realistic to just stop doing whatever you’re doing—they get that parents have jobs and other stuff to do! They understand that sometimes you need to finish up what you’re doing before you can give them the attention they want. But when “5 more minutes, please” turns into an hour, they want help. One group of kids designed an app that puts a time limiter on your device. So when you say you need 5 more minutes, it grants you that—but then shuts down your phone. They appropriately named this the “5 More Minutes” app.
They also want to use the STEL app that I mentioned in my last post as a gentle reminder to their parents to “Stop Texting, Enjoy Life.” Sometimes it’s that simple, right?
It’s also a good sign that kids are aware that there are things they shouldn’t be seeing. They reported coming into the room, usually after bedtime, and seeing things on TV that they know is not appropriate. If you watch Scandal, House of Cards, or anything on HBO, you know what I’m talking about. The kids expressed some clever ideas about how to manage this.
My favorite is the “Earmuffs App,” which was spontaneously developed by one group of children in a recent workshop. If you, the parent, are watching TV with “swearing” and “inappropriate content” and your child comes into the room, the app senses it and 1) switches the content to your smartphone or tablet and 2) mutes all the “swear words.” Brilliant!
Don’t Text and Drive
When the subject of parents and their technology comes up, children invariably bring up driving. You may not text and drive, or you may not think that your kids notice when you do. But so many kids in these workshops mention the issue—it is clear that this is happening. Some kids also report that their parents ask them to text or call for them while they are driving, which is safer but still annoying as kids want to tell you about their day in the car, not play secretary.
Not only do I want to be safe, but I also want to model good behavior for the kids in the back seat. Children seem to understand the safety issues of driving distracted, but I get the sense that it’s not their primary concern. They can’t relate to the responsibility of driving, and they trust in their parents’ capability and control. For them, the issue is parental attention. They kept going back to the apps mentioned above—limiters that can turn off technology and turn on parent-to-child attention.
As I mentioned above, some of this was hard for me to hear. All of this suggests that parents are not listening to their kids—and that kids feel frustrated about it. Clearly, our kids want more from us than they are getting. This hit home for me as I often check email as my son plays with Lego or digs into a coloring book. While I tend to think of this as parallel play, I need to check in with if and how I am making myself “unavailable.”
Lynn Schofield Clark wrote a great book called The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age that addresses how families in different demographic groups use technology, but in reality, there is no “Parent App.” It’s up to us as parents to recognize the signs, get self-reflective, and make corrections on our own. Our kids are watching and learning from every little thing we do, and from these workshops, they are speaking loud and clear about what they need from us.
P.S. I hope that you’ll take this post in the right spirit. The twinges of guilt that I experienced subsided into something productive after the initial shock. I wish the same for you—that this will help you see things in a new light. As always, I welcome any comments, criticisms, observations, or new ideas. We’re all in this together!
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When Raising Digital Natives works in school communities, I do a lot of classroom work with students about navigating friendships and social interactions in the digital age. My favorites might be 4th and 5th graders—they are often aware of the problems, and have a genuine desire to come up with solutions. They are kind, creative, and collaborative—a real pleasure!
I am a big proponent of technology. I believe that when it’s used carefully, it can provide kids with opportunities for exploration and growth. But it’s not without a cost. Digital devices can exacerbate, or even create, new problems. And as parents of digital natives, sometimes the landscape looks so different from the world we grew up in, we wonder how we can even begin to help our kids.
My solution? Let kids help. They know the issues, and they come up with great solutions. As I mentioned in my last post, I conduct a fun exercise in my workshops—I have kids design an app. First, we brainstorm a list of everyday issues with technology. Then I break them into small groups and task them with building a quick prototype of an app that addresses one of the problems we identified.
The result is twofold. Not only do the apps they developed tell us a lot about how kids experience one another and their parents’ communication via devices, but they also help kids think through and understand the issues. Imagine the next time they encounter one of these issue in real life. They will be well equipped to address it—or even avoid it!
I thought I’d share with you some of the clever things that come out of these workshops.
There’s an App for That!
As I open this exercise, we discuss some of the general daily relationship challenges that can come with more connected lives, a situation that for most of them, is pretty new. One of the first problems that routinely surfaces is texting impatience and persistence. Re-texting a zillion times when doesn’t get right back to you.
Apps for Solving Impatience and Persistence
These are always the top issues in any of these sessions. The kids offer a simple solution: an app that prevents you from sending more than 3 texts in a row without a response. Seems like a good one! If you try to send a 4th text, the app reminds you to be patient, with a message that suggests that the other person might be busy. One version of the “patience manager” is a cute bird that comes up to remind you to “Stop Texting, Enjoy Life” or STEL.
For the receiver, another solution to the problem is called, “Stop Texting Me” or STM (see below for more examples).
Another app features a panda that reminds you not to text if you are having a conversation with a real live person, in the same room. The microphone on your phone can recognize your voice, and if you are talking—the app disables outgoing text messages.
Escaping Group Chat Purgatory
Every single 4th-7th grader I have worked with who has used group chat has expressed how annoying it is to get involved in these conversations (or “strings”), and they always express confusion about how to get out or take a break. Another huge challenge is resolved by the “Separator” app that gets you out of those annoying group text strings that can leave 347 messages on your phone while you are out playing soccer.
This app offers helpful auto-responses, such as:
“NT, I don’t like to GM” (“No thanks, I don’t like to group message”).
“AFN” (“Absent for now”), so you can pause the string for a specified period of time, but don’t wish to be permanently dropped from the group.
The app also reminds you who is in the group chat in case you forget—and are tempted to say mean things about that person. Of course, even if someone is not in the group, the nature of group chat means it is quite likely that it could get back to them anyway, as I always remind the kids.
Kindness Apps: Sparkle Chat and more
Numerous kids are concerned about unkind speech. One app, called “Sparkle Chat,” rejects mean-spirited statements. It can detect bad language before you hit “send,” asking, “are you sure you want to say that?” or “how do you think the recipient will feel?” If you still insist on sending the mean text, it might warn the recipient that they are about to get it. One version of Sparkle Chat might also send the offending text to both kids’ parents.
I find this app to be intriguingly parental—yet is suggests that kids are seeking boundaries and guidance. I asked the girls who designed this app if they are able to imagine using the app’s criteria without actually having the app. They got it.
Speaking of apps that seem parental, another one they designed protects your sleep by observing the hour and your calendar for tomorrow. The app speaks to you, suggesting: “put me in another room so you can get some sleep, you have a big test tomorrow.” Many adults I know could use this app!
I’ll stop there because I have a whole other set of apps that kids designed for their parents, too. I’ll share those with you in my next post. Please subscribe to my newsletter or follow me on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss those!
Technology, and the connection it offers, is alluring. These apps teach us to resist our impulses to be annoying or thoughtless. They make us more like the people we want to be.
Doing this exercise with kids shows me that even 4th and 5th graders are not too young to critically observe their day-to-day experiences with technology. They are very aware of the behaviors they need to change, and have great ideas for how to do so. Their ideas and collaboration skills are excellent and I know that there are many great things to look forward to as we continue to foster kids’ digital citizenship.
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