As a member of the Screentime Research Group, I’m often asked about how to talk about some of these concepts with youth. These questions usually center on “at what age should I…” or “how do I talk about…” when it comes to parenting in a digital age.
As an example, I recently received this question, and wanted to share my full response here on the blog to help document my thinking…at this point.
Can you give a concrete example of a situation you could create to teach kids about digital security/algorithms?
Please keep in mind that my thinking is always in a state of flux as I’m always learning. You can follow more of this work on our website for the project, or listen to our podcast on the subject. I also suggest subscribing to my weekly newsletter if you want more insight into technology and digital spaces in general.
Here is my full response.
Talk to your children about privacy/security.
Having these discussions with your children as soon as it is developmentally appropriate is important. Our children are starting to use apps/spaces like ClassDojo, SeeSaw, Google Classroom, and other texts/tools/spaces in early childhood and elementary settings. They are also using digital tools and spaces at home, and in their everyday interactions. My gut reaction is that these discussions need to start when children are 4 or 5. My indication that these discussions need to be developmentally appropriate means that we need to use terms and analogies that make sense to the child.
A concrete example of this includes discussions I have with my daughter about safety & privacy using digital tools/spaces. I use the example of playing at the park. We have a large park that children love to play at. It has an enormous wooden fort that stretches across the play area. The entire space is surrounded by a stone wall…but it is very easy to get lost, and get close to the exit. We talk about the difference between strangers and people they know. We talk about what they should do if a child approaches them and wants to play. We talk about what to do if an adult approaches them and wants to play. We talk about what to do if someone asks that they leave the park, or come with them for candy, etc. We want them to think about other people that may be our friends…or strangers…or new people that we want to play with. My Wife and I have these discussions normally with our children. This dialogue extends to when we’re at the store, at a parade, or even online playing games.
The most important thing is that we don’t want our children to be afraid to come tell us when they find something, or someone online that makes them feel scared, uncomfortable, confused, etc. We don’t want our children unwilling or unable to come to us with these concerns. We don’t want them to think that we’ll have a knee-jerk reaction to just pull the plug on their opportunity to connect.
An example of this is when my son had a stranger reach out and send a message on Google Hangouts. As parents…we were freaked out. He was freaked out as well. But, this provided us with an opportunity to re-examine how we set up privacy controls. We also let him know he could/should come to us with this info. He knows that if someone reaches out in a video game, or elsewhere…even as an adolescent…he can come talk to us.
Digging Deeper. I should note that after reaching out to some parents in our group for more insight, one friend indicated that (at an early age) they started talking about privacy/security with their child…and involving him in the process. This includes setting up passwords, and using two factor authentication (2FA) for all apps, platforms, and spaces. This also included regular dialogue about not sharing your real name, identity, location, or other information with people you do not know. So…if your child wants to play a game like Roblox, they’ll help us set up the account and password. We’ll turn on 2FA together, and you’ll need to use this extra layer of security. I think I will use this as an opportunity to reset my son’s passwords, and have him help me in the process.
Talk to your children about data privacy & algorithms.
As our children move into more public spaces (day care, classrooms, etc.) it is more likely than not that more digital data will be created and collected on them. Sadly, we’re starting to better understand sharenting and ask questions about data that we share about our own children without their full understanding and permission.
A concrete example of how I would address this (data privacy and algorithms) with youth is to talk about stories and storytelling. Children’s books, particularly post-modern children’s books provide excellent opportunities to teach young learners (aged 3/4 on up) how to read and negotiate challenging online spaces. Storytelling also provides great opportunities to teach coding and computational thinking with children. I can share more resources on this if needed….I’ve been writing about it.
Parents can read a story with their child and talk about how they learned more about the story, or a specific character. You can talk about the clues left behind in the story and how those clues connect together to tell the story. The key is to find stories that are personally relevant and interesting to the child. As the child reads and re-reads the story, they connect more with the narrative and the clues or data points left over the course of the narrative. As parents, we then use this as a way to talk about how we can then learn more about the child. What is their story? What data points or clues do they leave behind? As you continue to explore this method, you can talk more with children about how the story you’re reading might have gone differently…and how the author might have left behind different clues or data points. This is then an opportunity to talk more about the stories that we create about ourselves, and how we tell these stories with clues that we leave online/offline.
Digging Deeper. After reaching out to some colleagues in our screentime network, one friend suggested that their child…and students in a classroom…used the example of other contexts (sports, wrestling, video games) to talk about data, clues, and narrative used to create a story. As an example, if the students were all interested in a wrestling figure, or an NHL team, they could talk about the physical characteristics, the storyline, clues left behind in prior episodes or matches. All of these data points would be combined to create an overall narrative about the individual, entity, or team. This can then be used to connect back to the child, and once again ask what they would suggest is their desired narrative, and how is this shaped by what they do online/offline.
Another parent suggested that Minecraft (and possibly Roblox) is an excellent way to teach data privacy and algorithms (and privacy/security). Minecraft is a great way to teach colors, counting, pattern recognition. It also is a good way to have dialogue about connecting and interacting with others (friends and strangers). Minecraft also provides an opportunity to look back at the history of what players have created, look at their rankings over time, and possibly rebuild structures and narratives.
Wait for an approach point…or create one.
As suggested in the first bullet point, it is important to have ongoing dialogue with your child…and start as soon as possible. It is important to wait for an approach point to engage in this dialogue. Nothing is more cringeworthy than a parent or adult randomly proclaiming “Daughter…let’s talk about Instagram.” We know from research in human cognition, that you want to find the approach point in your message to help make it relatable. It could be that your child wants to get a cell phone or tablet. It could be when your child asks to play Roblox or Minecraft…let’s set things up together.
One of the challenges is that parents should not wait for the perfect opportunity to have these discussions. Your child may not feel comfortable or confident in bringing this issues to your attention. If so, parents should look for opportunities to embed this line of questioning or dialogue. Or they may also consider creating these spaces for discussion. This could be like the example given up above about playing at the park. Start to equate everyday discussions and decisions that we make in the “real” or physical world with discussions and decisions parents need to make with children in digital spaces.
Examine our practices as parents.
I think there is also a need for parents to examine and problematize their own practices. Our children are watching and learning from adults and how we utilize these digital texts, tools, spaces. They see us when we zombie-scroll through social media feeds. They see us when we feverishly respond to notifications and updates. They’re watching and learning from our behaviors.
As such, there are a multitude of things adults should do:
- Secure your tools, spaces, places online (Use password systems, update software, keep personal info private)
- Respect age limits on tech, software, network spaces, etc.
- Problematize your own digital habits and model these for your children
- Use digital spaces/tools with children and talk about their interactions while online.
- Set a safety pledge, or agree on the rules with your child. Develop the rules together.
- Don’t sharent
In our house, we strive for balance in our use of screens. We use the model of screens on, screens off, screens on the side.
As parents, we need to ask questions of caregivers about the why/what of tech use. Why are they using ClassDojo or SeeSaw to take photos of our children and send us notices. Do we (as parents) want or need this communication? We need to ask questions about why our child’s art is uploaded to websites like Artsonia to sell products to friends and family members. Most importantly, we need to ask questions about where all of this data goes after our children have moved on, and the teacher, network admins, tech companies, and perhaps schools may no longer be there. Who will be tasked with ensuring this content is private and secure?
How can parents learn more?
The other challenge is that technology is moving so fast, it is often a challenge to stay on top of what is most important for our lives…and the lives of our children.
To address these concerns, I recommend following the blog feed and listening to the podcast available at the Screentime website.
I also provide a bit more detail in my weekly newsletter, available at Digitally Literate.