Devorah Heitner, founder of the website Raising Digital Natives, gives parents a different perspective on children around technology in her new book “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World” ($19.95, Routledge)
Instead of installing monitoring software like My Mobile Watchdog and Net Nanny, she wants parents to mentor their children about appropriate use of all the screens they use. “The more walls we build, the more we are just creating little hackers who are just trying to get around the fence,” she says.
Heitner, who lives in Chicago, taught media studies, especially kids and media and culture at the college level before starting Raising Digital Natives. She will be in Austin next week talking to parents at Doss and Highland Park elementaries. Her talks are open to the public.
While parents and teachers come to her presentations wanting the instant fix they think they will get by installing the perfect software, she’s says, “I’m just not their girl.” She won’t recommend an app. The only thing she might recommend is a router that you can set time limits on, not just for the kids, but also for the parents, too.
Instead, she teaches parents and teachers how to promote good citizenship online, and she wants parents to model good citizenship, too. That means connecting with the humans around them and putting down the device. It also means using good behavior in texts, in emails and in social media and talking to kids about why you chose the words you did and why you didn’t use other words.
Mentoring allows you to create an environment where kids feel comfortable talking to you about what they experience on social media, texting or online, she says. If you create an environment where you are monitoring and everything is forbidden, kids feel like they have to hide what they have seen or risk getting in trouble, she says. “You’re creating an environment that is a lack of trust and filtration.”
Parents fear that their kids will see something inappropriate, but you can’t really prevent that because you can’t apply a filter to every screen their friends have.
“It’s not if they see something, it’s when,” Heitner says. Even her own son, who is a second-grader, has come across things that she would not have wanted him to see until he was older. It has created an opportunity to talk about what he saw and why it’s not appropriate to see it.
If you’re not monitoring, but mentoring, it doesn’t mean you don’t know what your kids are doing. In fact you’re having a conversation about the group text they are getting, the things they Google, the people they are playing Minecraft with.
Parents who are secretly monitoring their kids get themselves into trouble. How do they let their children know what they saw that they don’t approve of if they’re not supposed to be monitoring them? “If you’re secretively monitoring what would your kid have to do, rob a bank” before you would talk to them about what they are doing? she asks.
One of the other questions parents ask her besides asking which monitoring app to use is when is it appropriate to give a child a cellphone. Her answer is it depends on the child. You want to make sure your child is responsible enough to not lose it and mature enough to not be impulsive at texting or social media posts. Many kids might not be all of that in fifth or sixth grade, when many parents start providing a cellphone. “Look for maturity, rather than a winter holiday,” she says about the timing of a gift of a cellphone.
However, you can’t avoid the cellphone forever. At some point, not having a cellphone means that kids will be isolated socially. By high school, almost every kid has a cellphone.
Here are some things to make sure to talk to your children about or ask them about when it comes to devices:
Do they know they people they are playing online games with? If not, you might want to set up a private server in games like Mindcraft to only invite real people they know.
Are they involved in group texts? Remind them that everyone is on those texts and can get hurt.
Are friends sharing texts with other friends about other friends? Remind them to not engage in that behavior and call it out when they see them.
Do they know the difference between online friends and real friends?
Are they looking for validation based on the number of likes and comments on posts?
What will happen if they lose their phone, tablet or computer? How will they reimburse you?
Do they understand that digital money is real money? Do you have a plan on what permission they will need and how they can pay for their online purchases?
How much time is too much screen time? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day. What limits will you set?
What will cause them to lose their phone, tablet or computer?
Where will the phones, tablets and computers live at night? Hint: Not in their bedrooms.
Make sure they know it’s OK to not respond to texts and social media posts right away. They don’t need to be connected all the time.
Invite them to ask you when they have a question. Google is wonderful, but it might provide information they might not understand or might be overwhelming to them.
Talk through different situations: What will you do if you see something inappropriate on your phone? What will you do if you feel a friend is not behaving well online? What will you do if a friend doesn’t understand that you can’t respond right away?
The book: “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” by Devorah Heitner ($19.95, Routledge)
Workshops: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Doss Elementary, 7005 Northledge Drive; 6:30 p.m. Thursday Highland Park Elementary, 4900 Fairview Drive