Parents everywhere are assaulted by conflicting research and advice about kids and screens. While some articles scream about digital dangers (New Research Shows Just How Bad Screens Are for Kids) others tell a different story (Worry Less About Children’s Screen Use, Parent Told). It’s enough to make a parent’s head spin.
So I decided to write a book on digital parenting—"Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship to Technology” (HarperCollins Leadership)—not to add fuel to the fire of parental angst, but to offer hope. Because, in my experience as a digital literacy teacher, parent, and founder of two digital media literacy organizations, I see things improving on the digital front. What makes me optimistic about the future? Sixth graders.
I teach digital literacy and online ethics (yes, that’s a thing) in Southern California. A couple of months into each school year, I challenge sixth graders to apply the principles of good citizenship —honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility, and courage—to the online world. The way they do this is to create, on paper, a website or app where at least one of these principles is a central tenet.
Even normally unengaged students love this assignment. Take Luis for example. A wiry 12-year old, Luis is usually anxious for Cyber Civics to end so he can head to his favorite activity, recess. But when it came to “designing” an app, Luis was all-in.
An avid mountain biker, he decided to invent an app called “Hurt Alert.” This app would make it easy for bikers, hikers, and others to demonstrate compassion and responsibility. Here’s how it would work: Say you were setting out for a ride or a hike alone, you could log in to Hurt Alert to tell others to keep an eye out for you or that you were available to help them if needed. Luis was so excited about this idea he even gave up his coveted recess time to “work” on his app.
I’m an avid mountain biker too, so I was thinking about Luis and his app the next day when I headed out on a ride alone. Suddenly, mid-turn, I hit some loose dirt and fell. I wasn’t hurt, but did find myself in an awkward position and temporarily unable to twist my shoe out of the pedal it was clipped into. As I lay there, trying to dislodge myself, I thought about how helpful it would have been to have Luis’ app on my phone.
The next time I saw Luis, I told him what happened and how I had longed for his app. His face lit like a Christmas tree, but only for a moment. He turned suddenly serious and admonished me, “Ms. Graber, it isn’t wise for you to ride alone. I’d better get that app made right away.”
Whether or not Luis takes the next step—learning how to actually make an app—remains to be seen. But in a time where the world’s most popular app, Facebook, was born in a college dorm room, anything is possible. The point is that, via this simple activity, Luis and his classmates got to imagine and practice building socially responsible features into new technologies. With any luck, the lesson will stick.
It seems important to offer children lessons like this one. After all, they will be the world’s future technology designers, marketers, business leaders, and consumers. As we watch so many apps and websites add simple safety features or screen time monitoring capabilities into their products only as an afterthought or in response to public outcry, I think we have to ask ourselves: What took so damn long? I hope the next generation will consider socially beneficial features as a pre-requisite in the tech they make, use, and buy, not an afterthought.
With the right practice, I believe they will.