In the third installment of FOSI’s Ask the Expert series, Good Digital Parenting’s Elizabeth Milovidov spoke with Amber Coleman-Mortley about navigating family conversations about technology and the importance of authenticity online. Follow along to learn more about Amber.
Outside of elevating an intersectional approach to gender issues, Amber Coleman-Mortley’s passions are focused on elevating diverse voices and perspectives in the civic education space, working with students, educators, and parent communities for more equitable outcomes. Amber spent a little under a decade at iCivics, building a trusted consumer base on social media; expanding and diversifying their Educator Network; and establishing the Youth As Civic Experts Network and Equity in Civics Youth Fellowship. Her work to bring students together around how to make civics more equitable and relatable for all kids resulted in a student-led listening tour of nearly 5,000 student responses from all 50 states.
Amber holds a B.A. in African American Studies from Oberlin College and an M.A. from American University in Media Entrepreneurship. A decorated three-sport varsity athlete, Amber continued her athletic passion as a P.E./Health teacher and varsity head coach at Sidwell Friends School for nine years. Amber covers civics, K12 education, edtech, and family life on her blog - Mom Of All Capes, and on the Let’s K12 Better podcast with her daughters. Her family’s advocacy has been featured in the LA Times, New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, and a variety of other broadcast, podcast, and online media outlets.
Why is it so important for parents to create a dialogue with their children and young people around their online lives?
An online experience can go off the rails or lead to very unintended spaces and outcomes. The web is a vast and expansive space and many of us engage in online activity while we are sitting safely in our homes, in a car, or even when we are in a room surrounded by our loved ones. Being in a physically safe space can make us believe that we are still "safe" while we are online. (This goes for parents and caregivers, as well as kids.) The challenge is admitting this to ourselves and navigating that tension. It’s not that we want to put a leash on our kids as they travel the web. However, we want to equip kids with the skills to evaluate a situation that could lead to negative outcomes or alert us to individuals or experiences that are dangerous.
And it’s not always about the bad stuff. There’s a lot of advice for parents and caregivers that focuses heavily on the dangers of kids being online. That is a reality, but as parents and caregivers, we must also be aware that there are some really amazing opportunities for kids to use digital platforms creatively.
We want our kids to trust us with their thoughts because we’ve laid down the groundwork where they can come and talk to us about anything that happens online that makes them uncomfortable and excited or proud. Talk about the feelings that come up when engaging with trolls and difficult people on social media, in chat rooms, and on gaming platforms. But also make sure that you talk to your kid about how it felt to build a game or upload content on social media that took hours to produce. Just as you’d ask your child about how their day went after getting off the bus after school, we want to ask them how their game went or ask about what interesting spaces they inhabited while online as well.
What are some of your favorite conversation starters?
Some of my favorite conversation starters require my kids to think about how human behavior can change when on digital platforms and why that would be. I also enjoy having them think about how we can build communities and safe spaces. A few that we regularly discuss in our home:
How can parents encourage children to be their authentic selves online?
Before parents and caregivers think about authenticity online, first establish what it means to be authentic offline. Your first consideration should be: when we think about authenticity, what is our family’s goal? What does authenticity mean in our home? Does being authentic mean we are who we say we are? Does being authentic mean we behave in line with our values? I’d recommend building out the answers to these questions together as a family. I’ve found that it’s best when families work together to establish values that impact identity development.
Authenticity online means that we are continually balancing the experience of anonymity while connecting more meaningfully (and safely) with others. The key to helping kids navigate this concept of authenticity is to provide our children with many opportunities to explore their identities, online and offline. How do we create spaces for kids to explore the tension that exists between being an individual while also wanting to belong?
These are not just value-based ideas, these are social-emotional skills and civic skills that we are asking kids to activate while participating on digital and virtual platforms. As parents and caregivers, we must hold ongoing conversations about how to be authentic without coming off as transactional. And then there’s the reality that online and offline identities do not perfectly align in every instance. Helping kids reconcile that and navigate when this can have positive and negative outcomes is an important ongoing conversation. What’s most important is while our kids are on this journey to their authentic selves, parents and caregivers, continue to model what authenticity looks like through our own interactions with family, friends, and coworkers because we are showing our kids how to “be together” in a space, how to be accepted in a space, and how to accept others in the spaces we share.