Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - August 16, 2013

Advice for parents in the digital age

Know the landscape, don't hesitate to talk about the issues with your kids, experts say

by Terri Lobdell

Parents often feel overwhelmed and unprepared for their kids' entry into the world of social media and online life, but experts say that parents can and should play an active role.

Below is a summary of key advice that emerged from Weekly interviews with teens, educators and other youth experts, as well as a review of published material on the topic. The article concludes with recommended resources.

Know the territory

Learn about your child's online habits: which websites he or she visits, what smartphone apps he or she uses, what harm or benefits might come from using each site or app, and how much your kid likes and uses a site or app. Don't wait for your child to fill you in or until there's a problem. Some basics:

* Read about how to protect and guide your child on social media from informative websites like Connect Safely, My Digital Tat2 and Online Onguard. Connect Safely has handy "parent guides" for Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat (the latter two are phone apps).

* Explore the social-media sites yourself, including Facebook, Tumblr, Ask.fm, Formspring, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat (you will need to set up accounts, or download smartphone apps, but that is not difficult and doesn't commit you to use them). Get a feel for their content and how they operate.

* Review the school district's "Library Guide" materials related to digital safety and cyberbullying on its website (and on individual school websites as well). Get familiar with what your child is learning on this topic in school, starting in second grade. You can learn along with them.

* Understand your child's developmental stage and needs, how age relates to bullying, and how to handle any incidents. Bullying can look different at different ages, involving different motivations, impacts and interventions. For example, in the case of late elementary and middle school students, according to psychologist Carl Pickhardt, the first step for adults is to recognize how "social cruelty is rooted in the dislocation, insecurity and need for more social independence that occurs as part of adolescent change."

* Attend parent-education events at school.

Be a good role model

Remember how much your actions matter; kids are watching. Teens often mention how adults themselves can be mean, bullying, gossipy, socially exclusive, belittling others' flaws and reluctant to stand up to others' mean behavior. Multiple teens expressed frustration about being told by adults to "stand up," in part because it is so risky, and in part because they don't see adults doing that. Teachers especially were frequently brought up during interviews; teens have vivid memories of more than a few who were mean or demeaning, or who looked away while students mocked or picked on another student.

Adults need to practice kindness, empathy, inclusiveness and standing up for those being picked on. How adults approach conflict is also something kids take in.

Discuss important online issues

There is no substitute for frequent, caring, non-judgmental, age-appropriate, in-person talk between parent and child about issues related to responsible online use. James Steyer's book "Talking Back to Facebook: Raising Kids in the Digital Age" has detailed information, organized by a child's age, about what parents need to know, do and discuss with their kids related to technology. Discussion topics most frequently mentioned by those interviewed by the Weekly include:

* What parents' values are, why they are important, and how actions, on and offline, reflect them. Parents also need to demonstrate that they value a child's character as much as their achievements.

* The importance of thinking before posting. Helping kids visualize the actual people on the other side of the screen who could be hurt by a hasty message or photo sent in anger.

* How interpersonal conflicts are best resolved in-person, and not in a public forum, and constructive ways to do that (for example, how to move an online conversation to a private meeting or phone call).

* Privacy issues, including how and why sexual activities are private and inappropriate online material. As one teen observed, it's hard to have intimacy without privacy, but a lot of teens are not taught that. Teens often think sex is something to brag about or a weapon for revenge. Social media heightens the effects of this misguided thinking. They need to hear differently from their parents.

* What the school rules and laws are around the use of social media and cyberspace (see sidebar, Cyberbullying Legal Issues) and the importance of following them.

* What social media sites your child is using, what they enjoy about them and what risks they see.

* Share your own bullying experience (even if you were a bystander): what happened, how you felt, how you got through it, and what you might have done differently.

Embrace the positives of social media

This is the title of a chapter in Steyer's book that parents are well-advised to read. Steyer describes the online educational opportunities, outlets for creativity and self-expression, possibilities for positive social connectedness, and benefits for civil engagement and democracy. The company My Digital Tat2 also focuses on social media's upside in its mission statement about "creating an online community of kindness and respect." It's important to kids that parents see the good in social media, in addition to risks. Treating social media as the enemy, as some adults do, is not fair to kids, and it's alienating. "Be curious, not furious," My Digital Tat2's website advises.

Take control

Most experts counsel parents that they have both the right and responsibility to assert control over their kid's use of social media, especially at younger ages. Parents pay for the technology; they are the adults; and they need to set limits and enforce them. As kids grow older and demonstrate their ability to act both independently and responsibly online, controls can be relaxed.

Former Paly Principal Phil Winston weighed in on this: "It is the parent's responsibility to have those conversations to educate their kids, to put those firm boundaries on, and if that means turning off the data or the wireless at night, those are the things that (parents) should be doing."

Possible family "media rules" abound in Steyer's and others' books and websites, listed below. The important thing is to think them through and then make some. Here are key areas to consider:

* When to buy your child a cell phone and whether it should be a "smart" phone: Steyer's advice is to "delay, delay, delay" ideally until high school. If cell phones are needed before then, he and others recommend a basic cell phone (without mobile computer, camera, gaming and downloading device). Save the smartphones for older teens.

* Placing limits on the number of hours per day for cell and computer use ("screen time").

* Designating media-free times: family meals, before bedtime, etc. Some advise taking possession of cell phones at bedtime (much texting occurs after lights out).

* Establishing rules about content: Experts vary on this, and a lot depends on the kid. Steyer advises no Facebook until at least age 15. He also says no exploring "YouTube" without a parent for kids under 13.

* Monitoring use: At younger ages, experts agree that computers be kept in common rooms for easy monitoring (no bedroom computers). When kids are older, there is debate about whether parents should require a child to share passwords with parents, so that parents can access the same online territory as their kids. Being "friends" on Facebook is not the same as having a password because kids can block what different Facebook "friends" see. However, teens also can work around password-sharing by setting up new accounts their parents don't know about.

Instead of requiring passwords (and the potential for the "cat and mouse" dynamic), many educators and youth experts focus on nurturing the parent-child relationship and trusting to that firm foundation to carry the day.

Author Emily Bazelon favors the "start out strict" philosophy, detailed in her book, "Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy." She recommends getting passwords at first, not because you don't trust your kids, or because you want to look at everything they do, but because you want to help them learn the rules of this new virtual world they're entering and to think critically about what they do or encounter there. When they're older, Bazelon suggests parents may want to move to a "trust but verify" or "probable cause" model where you assume everything is okay but check if you have reason to think otherwise.

* Make clear, early and often, what your expectations are for your child's online behavior. Don't assume they will figure this out on their own.

* Don't protect your kids from the consequences of their actions; mistakes are important learning opportunities, even if they result in undone school projects or black marks on school records. If there are rules, parents should enforce them or support others in enforcing them. "Some parents think they're loving their kids by protecting their kids from the consequences (but that's) a huge disservice to their child," former Palo Alto Police School Resource Officer Dan Pojanamat told the Weekly. "(It) breeds a type of kid who thinks they can do what they want without consequences because they're rich (or) because they have parents who are willing to step in for them regardless of whether they're right or wrong."

If your child tells you about a cyber-incident

First, realize you are lucky in at least one respect: Most kids don't report online problems to adults. Next, avoid being reactive; prepare to listen. My Digital Tat2 founder Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet told the Weekly: "Listen first. Listen really carefully and ask questions and encourage them to really open up and talk, with openness and without shame and without judgment."

If a child sees fear, anxiety or anger in a parent's face, the child will get scared and tend to hold back. Often a parent jumps in so quickly that they end up terrifying the kid, she said. But as the parent listens, the parent can evaluate: Is my child at risk of immediate physical or emotional harm? Do I have time to work with my child on this? Other tips:

* Make sure your child knows you believe them. My Digital Tat2's Erica Pelavin reports that kids often tell her how important it was when they were believed. Tell your child: "That must be a very painful situation. ... I hear you. ... I'm behind you. ... We're going to work this out." Don't ask: What did you do to deserve this? And don't dismiss what they tell you as no big deal. If they are telling you, it is a big deal.

* Don't threaten to shut off the computer or suggest your child just avoid the hurtful site as a simple solution to the situation. "They're still worrying that the stuff is going on even if they're not watching it," Pelavin said.

* Don't try to fix anything until you have fully listened. Don't threaten to call other parents (the kiss of death socially for a kid, per Moskowitz-Sweet), or confront the perpetrator (also the kiss of death). When creating a plan for addressing the problem, encourage your kid to be involved or even take the lead (respecting their need for some control and to account for their feelings about what's best for them given the social nuances involved).

Stay involved

A recent Jordan newsletter advised parents that middle school students' exposure to online material is expanding exponentially. "Knowing this, it has never been more important to stay involved with your students' interests and social connections." This is the bottom-line message of most books, websites and expert advice on this topic. Even as your teen pushes you away, find ways to stay involved and connected. Realize the importance of this. "The strength of the (parent-child) connection is the best bulwark against giving and taking pain as a result of social cruelty that I have seen. The best prevention is parental connection," Pickhardt wrote.

Have faith in the kids

Steyer writes: "In the end, it is critical that we embrace the potential of the digital media revolution. The key challenge is to respect and encourage the innovation, creativity, and expertise of young people, while providing adult guidance and participation. If we succeed, the possibilities of digital technology will outweigh the perils, and, as my younger brother Tom always says ... 'The kids are going to be all right. They can handle this.'"

Parent resources

Books

"Talking Back to Facebook: Raising Kids in the Digital Age" (2012) by James Steyer

"Why Good Kids Act Cruel" (2010) by Carl Pickhardt

"Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy" (2013) by Emily Bazelon

"The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age" (2013) by Catherine Steiner-Adair

"School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time" (2012) by Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja

"The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Pre-school to High School How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence" (2008) by Barbara Coloroso

Websites

Commonsensemedia.org

Connectedsafely.org

Cyberbullying.us

MyDigitalTat2.com

Onguardonline.gov

Pausd.org (under Library Guides)

ProjectCornerstone.org (under "Resources")

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