How should families determine whether a child is “ready” for a smartphone? What do parents and caregivers need to know before introducing this powerful technology to their child, and how can they best teach, guide, and monitor its use?
Children and Screens’ inaugural Fall 2023 #AskTheExperts webinar “Ready, Set, Smartphone: A Guide for Families” was held on August 23 at 12pm via Zoom. A panel of media experts, child safety advocates, parenting coaches, and communications researchers provided best practices and strategies for evaluating child readiness, integrating smartphone screen time into family life, and preparing children to safely engage with the new supercomputer in their pocket, as well as discussed specific considerations for smartphone use by neurodivergent youth and youth with disabilities.
Elizabeth Englander, PhDDirector; Professor of PsychologyModerator
Meryl Alper, PhDAssociate Professor of Communication Studies
Stephen BalkamFounder & CEO
Devorah Heitner, PhDAuthor
Elizabeth Milovidov, PhD, JDFounder
[Kris Perry]: Welcome, everyone to today’s Ask the Experts webinar. Ready, Set. Smartphone: A Guide for Families. I’m your host, Kris Perry, Executive Director of the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, and we are so glad to be back with our fall webinars. It’s back to school season and for many families this time of year now comes with a new question. Do I finally relent and get my child a smartphone, which is one of the most common questions we hear from caregivers. This question can be challenging to answer and snowballs into so many other questions, such as, what does my child need to know before they have their own smartphone? Are there specific tools or features that can support my child with their new device? And even, are there alternatives available for a child who is not quite ready? We’ve brought together a panel of experts, including psychologists, parenting coaches, online safety experts, and scholars to unpack some of these questions for you. Together, they’ll discuss how to know when your child is ready for a smartphone or any smart device, for that matter, and how to prepare them and yourself successfully for everything that comes along with it. The panel has reviewed the questions submitted during registration, but we also invite you to submit additional questions at any time using the Q&A box at the bottom of your Zoom screen. We are recording this workshop and you will receive a link to the YouTube video as soon as it’s available. Without further ado, I would like to introduce you to today’s moderator, Dr. Elizabeth Englander. Dr. Englander is an award winning author and the founder and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, a center which delivers programs, resources, and research for the state of Massachusetts and nationwide. She is a nationally recognized expert in the area of bullying and cyberbullying, childhood causes of aggression and abuse, and children’s use of technology. Just this year, her ninth book, You Got a Phone, was awarded a National Parenting Product Award. In addition to her many other roles, she serves as a member of Children and Screens’ Scientific Advisory Board. We are thrilled to have Elizabeth leading today’s discussion.Welcome, Elizabeth.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Thank you, Kris. And thank you to everybody who’s logged on. We’re all so happy to see you. And I think we have a really exciting event for you today. And something that is really going to be useful. We’re not going to be just talking pie in the sky. We’re really going to be approaching concrete ways and tips that we can help kids and, excuse me, and really do that from a research based point of view. So I am going to go ahead and, excuse me, just set the scene and we’ll give everybody an idea of what it is that we’re actually going to talk about. And then I’m going to turn it over to some of our other speakers. So my name is Elizabeth Englander. I’m the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center. And, excuse me, I have a frog in my throat. And I do have, I do a lot of research and education and training around children and technology. And I think that the real issue that we’re looking at today is, when are kids ready for their first cell phone? How do you tell when you’re a parent? How do you know that your child is going to use this device safely? How do you know that they’re going to use it wisely? And these are really important, really important questions. And I think that there are a lot of issues that can make this decision, phone or not phone, pretty tricky. And it seems like maybe at times it should be a simple thing to think about. But I think it’s not a simple thing. I think these are complicated questions. And so we’re going to help you today, really think about this and think about how to educate kids and educate your own child and yourself about ways that you can transition their digital development into a new smart device. Or maybe it’s just going to be about using the devices that your family already has, which is perfectly fine as well.A lot of the issues are very similar. I do think that one of our big goals today is going to help our kids be healthier phone consumers. So we don’t want kids to run into social problems. We don’t want them to run into mental health problems. We want to think about a series of issues. So, for example, we want to think about issues like do devices affect kids’ mental health, and does getting them a device actually factor into that? Is there any difference, for example, between a child having their own smartphone versus using all the devices that you might have around in your house? And there is some research that suggests it can be different. We want to think about things like anxiety. Do, do devices make your kids feel more anxious? Do they make them feel different ways about themselves or about their friendships? You know, there are things that I see that parents often bring to me that they’re very concerned about when they’re thinking about getting their child a device. So, for example, you may see kids, excuse me, who are kind of ignoring other people to look at the device and a lot of people do this and a lot of people notice when kids do this and it can kind of drive us crazy. And then there’s issues like screens and sleep. We still want our kids to sleep and be healthy. And then there’s issues like FOMO, which is, you know, fear of missing out. We don’t want our kids to experience that too much. But there are effective ways to guide children. And I really think that’s important. And that’s really what we’re going to focus on today is the effective ways to guide kids, to help them sort of achieve a healthy screen life balance. And that’s a lot of what our experts here today are going to talk about. And this is a wonderful team of experts. I think it’s really going to be helpful. So these are all issues you can think about as the webinar progresses. As Kris pointed out, you can go ahead and as you listen, if you think of any questions you can submit them through the Q&A. I’m going to go ahead now and introduce our first speaker. So, excuse me. Our first speaker is Dr. Devorah Heitner. She is the author of Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World and Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in their Digital World. I love the use of the word “their.” Devorah, I think that’s really great. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN Opinion. She has a Ph.D. in Media, Technology and Society from Northwestern University, and she has taught at DePaul and Northwestern. So, Devorah, why don’t you take it away? We’re so happy to have you here and eager to hear what you have to say.
[Dr. Devorah Heitner]: Thank you. So I talk to a lot of parents as well, like you do Elizabeth, who are stressing about this question. And I do think the last five years has really taken the phone as kind of jumping off a cliff into a different place since most kids have been home on Wi-Fi on other devices doing a lot of the same things. You know, the apps can do a lot of the same things. And many of the things kids want to do, they’re already doing, like chatting with friends on, you know, server based games like Roblox. So we’re not in as much of a situation where giving a kid a phone is like their first foray into a digital community for the most part, many of them are entering digital communities on games like Minecraft and Roblox and other things before that, or they’re in a digital community at school. Nonetheless, giving kids a mobile device where they can move around the home space and around the community and still communicate and get access if it’s a smartphone, which that’s what most kids will get, to the Web is a big deal. So I don’t want to diminish that transition, but I also just want to say that, that we need to start having these conversations with our kids about the ways we hope that they will behave and the choices we want to reinforce and support before they even get a phone. So we’re already probably in that conversation in many cases. I’m going to share my screen here. And let’s see if that worked. Okay, perfect. So we’re already in these digital spaces with our kids and so even before they get a phone, one of the things we can do is start to observe, where is my kid running into trouble? You know, are they a little bit impulsive with friends when they are in these server based games or in the Google Hangout with classmates, right? When they’re using my phone, which a lot of, a lot of kids are using their parents phones, maybe to communicate with a few friends or peers before they have a phone or even cousins or extended family. What does that experience look like? What do we see going right? What do we see where they need support? Observing where your child has been successful in their communication with others using a digital tool versus where they have struggled or needed support is going to be really helpful as you prepare them to kind of launch into a phone. There are a bunch of areas where parents and kids kind of run into challenges. One of the things we worry about with the phone is just reputation. What will kids post about themselves? I would strongly suggest focusing on texting as the first real skill set with a phone and also even making and receiving phone calls, even though most kids are less motivated on that front. My own 14 year old and given what I do this, maybe he should be reassuring to parents because I’ve literally spent the last, most of his life working on these issues and I still have had a lot of like almost, I would say, remedial work on phone calls where, you know, in the last couple of years I’ve been like, all right, let’s call the store and see if they’re open or see if they have what you want or just these low stakes experiments with phone calls. And the first you did not go well. So just know that kids are very inexperienced on making phone calls. But I would really work on texting before social media because texting is such an important way for kids to connect with classmates, friends, peers, even their teams. A lot of coaches are using apps like Remind to reach out to their young athletes. So it’s really good for kids to get very, very practiced and experienced on texting. And I think we under-teach texting. And one of the things that happens as parents is we are thumbing out our lives, right? Like literally thumbing out our lives in front of our kids. And they’re not hearing us on the phone the way we heard our parents on the phone. So we’re missing that opportunity to talk to them, right, about how it’s going on, unless we actually make it explicit, unless we’re on the phone and we say, oh, you know, I’m going to actually tell grandma this big news instead of texting her because this is such big news and we want to kind of be with her while she responds, right, or something like that. Or I’m having a conflict right now. We’re not really understanding each other. So I’m going to call the person to try to work it out because, you know, it’s just getting worse with texting. Privacy is another issue that we don’t always think about talking with kids about, but we may be nervous about who they’re going to connect with, the ways they’re going to connect. And that as they get into things like social media, we may get worried that they are going to get confused about friends versus followers. This is a big issue because kids can quantify their following on social media and that can put a lot of stress on kids. And we might worry that they might crowdsource their identity, that they might start doing things to kind of appeal to the masses on social media. We want to make sure that they stay true to themselves. A huge thing that comes up even in gaming, as I mentioned, but also especially as they get into texting is, how do they resolve conflict with friends? And group texts are kind of where a lot of kids are jumping into the deep end now in late elementary school, we’re seeing a lot of fourth, fifth and sixth graders diving into these massive group texts, sometimes with their whole class or their whole grade. And one of the things we want to do, ideally before a kid is getting into this, is start asking them questions like some some some theoretical is like, what would you do if everyone said let’s restart the soccer group text, but without Sean? Or what would you do if people start talking in a mean way about a teacher? And not like a right or wrong answer, but just like, let’s brainstorm. Think of some options. A huge thing we can do to help prepare kids for the realities of group texts, which can be honestly like a toxic nightmare stew, is remind them that they may want to shrink the scope of communication if things are going wrong. So if somebody is being mean in a group text, we may want to go directly to that person and ask them to change the way they’re communicating rather than calling them out in front of everyone, because most people do not respond well to that and will double down and be defensive as opposed to apologizing and changing course. Another option is if someone’s being targeted in the group text, you can go to them privately and express solidarity. Another option is you can get out of a group text if it’s not going well. And we just want to remind kids that in digital communications, it’s always permissible and okay to get out. Whether that’s someone being mean to you on a server based game, whether that’s a group text, whether that’s comments on your social media. Because what I find when I talk to kids in schools is a lot of them don’t know that it’s okay to just leave a situation digitally. They feel like they have to stay to try to make it better, that it’s like rude to leave. It’s very hard to disengage. So a huge thing we can do is remind kids that they can leave. And if they’re in a situation where people they don’t know, especially that they can just leave. If they’re in a situation with people they do know and it feels awkward, I know there are a lot of parents here today, I just want remind you that your kids can use you as an excuse to leave, and especially for those new texters and upper elementary and early middle schoolers. Parents are a great thing to use, right? Like high schoolers are not going to want to throw their parents under the bus, nor are they going to want to admit that, you know, they’re not going to say, oh, my dad looks at my phone, but if you’re in fifth grade and things are getting bad, you can just say, hey, I’m going to get in trouble for this, or my mom says, I have to go. And that is a huge out for kids, even if your parents are not right there. Another thing to remind kids is that there’s another human being on the other end of all of these digital interactions. And so sometimes we can see online disinhibition where kids forget that they’re typing to others. I think that might happen to some adults as well. But we just need to remind kids that they’re always communicating with other human beings and they’re accountable and responsible for not, you know, causing harm intentionally. As Elizabeth mentioned in her introduction, we want to be thinking always about sleep. So before you even get your kid a phone, you may want to be thinking about where in the house is it going to live? Is it going to live far away from bedrooms, which I would strongly suggest, and especially for middle schoolers and elementary schoolers, very few kids that age have the self-regulation to put away a device at night on their own independently and be reliable about that. And even if you’re giving a phone to a very young child where sometimes they’re going to be more compliant in those early years, like, say, a fourth or fifth grader, I want you to think a little bit ahead to when they’re at like an eighth grader in love for the first time. And think about whether you want the phone to live in their bedroom. There may be some good reasons not to do that. And to maybe even separate out, as in my family, we have a 14 year old who listens to a lot of music and podcasts at night, and we actually found a device that just does that. And it yes, it was actually quite difficult to find a device that is not a smart device, that just plays music, but we did find one. I want to kind of close this, this section with just talking about mentoring over monitoring, which I’ve been saying since Screenwise and Growing up in Public also talks about this, where we really want to take an approach with our kids, whatever new digital experiences or digital communities they’re entering, we want to be thinking about mentoring, teaching them how to get it right, teaching them to be accountable and repair their errors, which there are going to be errors.They’re going to learn things and it’s not always going to go perfectly, rather than monitoring. Monitoring is often about catching kids after the fact, and you don’t want to find out after the fact that they’ve used their phone to look at pornography, or that they’ve used their phone to say something really harmful in a digital space. You want to prepare kids for the realities of being in connected communities, and for the content that you think is problematic and that you don’t want them to see, and you want to be talking to them about that in advance and in the process of teaching them. And you want to also make sure that you’re not so focused on monitoring that you end up driving your kid underground, right? If you’re so closely reading everything that they write to friends that they feel like they have no privacy, they may get very focused on going underground and finding a new way to communicate. For a new texter, a kind of monitoring that might work as mentoring is actually looking at it together once a week. But ultimately your goal should be that they’re independently communicating with friends and coming to you if there’s a problem and that’s a great way to build trust as kids get older and get more independent in their relationships. So I know we can surveil our kids with apps, we can put Life360 on them. I’m not a fan, but we can also talk about that. And then finally, I’ll just say quickly that I know kids can feel really left out when they look at their devices, and that’s another thing to start to work on with them beforehand, but also know that they may need to be resilient in the face of that. And if you know, you have a kid who really struggles with that, that’s something to think about with getting them a phone or waiting or thinking about what onboarding looks like. All right. Any questions for me?
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: I had a question or two. One of the questions I often get from parents is, how do you begin a conversation about these issues? And sometimes we talk with parents about doing things like just telling your kids, I’m thinking about getting you your first device, or your child may bring up a situation like saying, my friend got a phone or some situation like that, maybe read something in the news. But I’m just wondering if you have any ideas about how to begin these conversations.
[Dr. Devorah Heitner]: One thing you could say is what have you seen, like in your friend group, like, say, your kids, like “I really want X or Y, I want Tik Tok.” What have you seen kids doing with it that you like and don’t like? What have you heard about? What has someone shown you on the bus, frankly? Because you know, if it’s an app like that, some probably already showed it to your kid. Like they’re not they’re not coming in blind, in other words, with never having been exposed. So I think that’s really helpful. And then seeing, you know, what are some alternatives, like maybe you’re not ready to let your kid have Tik Tok, but if there’s a few memes that they feel like they must see for water cooler conversation, would you be willing to download the app and look at those memes with them a couple of times a week on your phone, but you’re not ready for them to like, independently explore that app, which I can think of a lot of good reasons to hold off on that one for younger children. But those those kinds of opportunities might make it a little easier to wade in. I don’t think we have to think about smartphone versus no smartphone as completely black and white. Like I’m giving my kid 24 seven access to their best smartphone that they’re going to have all the time. We can absolutely think about intermediate apps and devices, which I know other folks will talk about in a moment. Or we can think about giving them access, but only for a limited window every day. They don’t need to bring it to school, for example. I think that’s a huge help for parents thinking about how can I gradually, you know, sort of let my kid get get used to this and learn how to do it successfully.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: That’s great. Devorah, thank you. One other question that occurred to me while you were talking is that we did a qualitative study a few years back where we found that the most effective place for kids’ phones to live and charge overnight was in the parent’s bedroom. And I’m wondering if you hear anything else or anything different. We explored a bunch of different bedtime techniques, and I’m just curious what your thoughts are about that.
[Dr. Devorah Heitner]: I think parent’s bedroom could be fine, especially if you know your kid will sneak the phone at other times. And the more, you know, I’m in a small family and in a small home. So for me, taking devices at night is much easier than using technology to shut them down. And it just makes sense with my one kid. I think if I was in a huge house with five kids, I might be tempted to go with a tech solution that turned all the phones into bricks at night. But I talked to a lot of families where kids have found a moldering device in a drawer that they put on Wi-Fi that you don’t remember existed. So I just think, you know, you have to, you have to establish trust with your kids, but you also need to be in conversation with them. And hopefully one of you, you know, one of the adults in the household maybe is a light sleeper and can occasionally just make sure the kids in the house are going to sleep. And this becomes even more of an issue, honestly, in high school, when parents are aging, like I’m there now, like I’m getting older, I need more sleep and my kid is getting to the point where he’s getting home later and doing more things at night legitimately, like activities and sports, and he is sometimes going to bed after me. So then the question is, did that happen at ten or is it happening at two? And ideally, I should be trying to push myself to stay awake to find out, because otherwise, you know, we know that the harm of losing sleep is significant in terms of kids’ mental and physical health. And honestly, if you have one hill to die on as a parent and screens, that would be the, sleep would be the one. I would pick that battle and fight to win all the way.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: I completely agree with you. And I also really want to encourage parents not to worry too much about setting limits. That it’s true, the basis of this needs to kind of be a conversation and thinking about things and teaching your kids how to think about these issues. But limit setting is fine and it’s desirable in fact, as Devorah just pointed out. And I think that as kids get older, ideally you want to be in a position as a parent where you’ve set up the rules long before and they’re so accustomed to them that you’re going to get less pushback.
[Dr. Devorah Heitner]: And it can be a relief for them because kids feel a lot of pressure to be accessible to their friends all the time. So one thing you can do, especially if you have a kid who’s feeling that stress, is give them some language they can use with their friends. That’s like a boundary setting language. It’s like, oh, I really can’t do that until after homework. Or I just, you know, I need my beauty sleep or whatever. And just to kind of get them used to that because then they feel relieved, even though they might feel initially frustrated. And I’ll try to throw it into the chat, but I just saw a great conversation with an educator and his adult kids about how they’re in college now and they’re saying, yes, actually it was good that you made us go to bed at night.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Yep, yep. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Thank you so much, Dr. Heitner, this was really great. If you could turn off your screen sharing so we can go on to our next speaker. So we have something really terrific. Next, what we’re going to do is we’re going to have not so much a presentation, but more of a really interesting conversation. And we’re going to be doing it with Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov, and Stephen Balkam. So let me introduce them and then they can take it away. Elizabeth is the founder of DigitalParentingCoach.com, a resource for parents and caregivers. As a lawyer, law professor, and child online protection expert, wow, with more than 20 years of experience, she has advised government and child protection agencies, nonprofits and think tanks on public awareness campaigns, research initiatives and public policy strategies related to digital safety, parenting and well-being. Currently, she is the Senior Corporate Counsel supporting the Lego Group as a trusted leader in implementing and promoting digital child rights, safety and well-being in digital gaming and metaverse experiences. That’s really exciting because Lego is moving to Boston, which is where we are in Massachusetts. So Elizabeth, I hope to see a lot more of you. Stephen Balkam is also part of our conversation. For the past 30 years, Stephen has had a wide range of leadership roles in the nonprofit sector in both the US and the United Kingdom. He is currently the founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, an international nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, DC. I’m sure many of our many of our attendees today have heard of it. FOSI convenes the top thinkers and practitioners in government, industry and the nonprofit sectors to collaborate and innovate and create a culture of responsibility in the online world. So I know this is going to be a great conversation. Take it away, Elizabeth and Stephen.
[Dr. Elizabeth Molovidov]: Well, thank you so much, Stephen, I’ll let you.
[Stephen Balkam]: Oh, no please.
[Dr. Elizabeth Molovidov]: Well, I can just say that first it was absolutely fantastic listening to Devorah giving out so many practical solutions and tips. And I even saw that the questions were coming in really, really quickly. I think that something that both you and Devorah really focused on was this idea of a parental guidance, I would say, and I really want to stress that, that it’s not parental controls. We’re talking about parental guidance. And I think this idea that we can set boundaries and set opportunities looking for the ways of using smartphones and other technology, of course, in a way that’s going to help your child thrive, that’s going to help them with school, that’s going to help them in their social connections. And it just this is what’s happening in the future, this is, this is it, this is now, they can do pretty much anything on a smartphone. I think before we start going into some of the questions that I hear in my digital parenting community about what’s the right age and and what should I do with my older teens.
I think it is really interesting to listen to Stephen as he talks about the policies perspective and and what’s happening in the in the United States as opposed to where I’m sitting here in Europe, in the United Kingdom, actually, just to talk to kind of see some of those differences. So, Stephen.
[Stephen Balkam]: Thank you, thank you both. Yeah, just and I’m really struck by what Devorah was saying. And I want to get down into some more of the nitty gritty. But I guess from a 35,000 foot level view, the difference I see and we just did a big event in Dublin, a European event, is in Europe, there’s more of an emphasis on children’s rights. And in the United States, more of an emphasis on parents rights. And so you see legislation, particularly in places like Utah, Montana, Louisiana, setting parents as the arbiters of what kids can and can’t do on their phones and on their devices. In Europe, you see much more of a sense of, particularly as children get older and into their teenage years, they have rights themselves to access content, to communicate and so on. So I wanted to just just mention that cultural distinction. And then you have, I guess, the technological distinctions between online safety tools that are the tools that help kids block, report whatever on their own social media experiences as opposed to parental controls, which lock down what the kids can and can’t do. And so I just want to set that out. The other thing, you know, it’s funny about devices and bedtime, I guess, that’s probably the most important battleground that occurs. In my own family, we created a closet that everyone, adults included, had to put their devices at night to charge up.
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: That’s the best.
[Stephen Balkam]: Of course, we discovered our younger daughter going down at night to grab it. And then we switched off the router at night. That didn’t help because eventually we would see the router back on in the morning. So we used to take the router to bed with us and then we discovered that some kid had given her an iPod Touch and she had linked it to the Wi-Fi next door where she was babysitter. So, you know, tenacious, determined kids, particularly teens, will always find a way. So that’s where the conversation is so important. That’s where setting a good example is so important. And, you know, the number one complaint that we get from kids when we work in schools is we can’t get our parents’ attention. Mom’s always on Facebook. Dad’s always just checking his email at dinner. So, parents, please start with yourself. Curb your own addictions, if that’s what you want to call them, and put things down and give your own kids eye contact, give them hugs, whatever it is, and be present for them.
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: You know, Stephen I think that is so important. Oh.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Stephen I know that in our research we actually. Oh, sorry. Sorry, Elizabeth.
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: Oh, it’s okay. I was just going to touch really quickly upon what Stephen was saying about this parental role model as he was saying that, you know, they all put their devices in the closet. I mean, this is what is so important. And I think that parents always think that this is the parenting in the digital age is so big, it’s it’s much more difficult than something that they can handle. And really it’s just down to the basics, as Stephen was saying, about being there, about having those conversations, about getting creative when your children go around the rules that you’ve set up because they will do so. But this is a great, great opportunity for you to learn with them, for you to keep on finding out what’s going on. And I just really want to make sure that parents don’t give up hope because kids, cellphones, smartphones, they’re here to stay. So we really can do this.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Absolutely. Amen to that. You know, Stephen, one of the things we found in our research is that half of children in elementary or middle school say that they have had significant numbers of times where they’re trying to get their parents attention and their parents are looking at a device. So what you’re seeing in the field is not is, I can back that up with some research that we found. Having said that, I’m going to throw a wrench into everybody’s advice. And I’m going to point out to you that you can easily be a be in a situation like as a parent where for example, you have a rule that your child’s devices have to go off at 7 p.m. or 6 p.m. or whatever, but maybe because you’ve been taking care of them during the day, you have work to do in the evening and you have to be online. Or perhaps maybe you like to read the news or a book on a device, but that doesn’t mean you want your child to have their phone or their device in their bedroom. So I just think it can sometimes be tricky as a parent to sort of navigate this. And I do think in general, we really do want to stick to the policy of showing kids that we do what they do. And so that means that when you’re sitting at dinner, you’re paying attention to each other, you’re not looking at a device. Or when they’ve come up to you and say, mom or dad, I really want to talk about something. You close your laptop and you give them your full attention because that’s the thing to do. But at the same time, I do think it is important to remember that as the adult, you have many more responsibilities and you also have many more privileges.
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: Exactly.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: And that means that there may be times when you’re going to use a device, you know, at night because you have to, because you have a job and there’s things you have to do and that so you know, you’ve got to sort of, I think, balance the reality of that experience with the great and totally accurate and true advice.
[Stephen Balkam]: I totally agree. Danah Boyd gave a really good example when her kids were little. Danah Boyd, by the way, is a pretty well-known researcher in this space. She found herself inevitably on her phone a great deal because you know what? She was checking the recipe for dinner tonight, and she’s looking at directions for the dance class for her eldest daughter. And yeah, but what she did was really interesting. She verbalized it to her kids. I am just checking the weather for tomorrow to see what clothes we all need to wear. I’m now you know, I’m not. So there was, like, a constant interaction and not just a dumb, you know, looking at this, by the way, speaking of throwing spanners in the works of wrenches, whichever country you’re from. I actually think we should not just say, Ready, Set, Ready, Set, Smartphone. I would like to throw in the notion of a smartwatch or a gizmo. Far too often I’ve seen what we call the pass back iPhone. You know, when mom or dad are driving kids around and they just pass their old phone back to the backseat and the phone never comes back to the front seat again because mom and dad have gone and bought a new one. And so now kid has got an old iPhone. But guess what? There are no controls on it. Instead of that and we’re seeing kindergartners and one in first and second graders showing up to school with $1,000 devices. And instead of giving them that with the full access to the Web, there are great, great phones out there, sorry, watches out there like the gizmo. And I think there’s a, I’ve offered a link to the organizers. Maybe they can post that. The New York Times recently wrote a piece on all of these, which offers the child the ability to make a call to text and in some cases take a photograph. But it’s not open to the Web and they can’t download apps. And ironically, it’s often the parents who are thrusting these devices on their kids because what? They want to know where their kids are or if there’s another 9/11 or, God forbid, a school shooting, they want to be able to access their kids. And that’s a that’s a legitimate desire and concern. But don’t go and get the latest smartphone. Get them something, a device that they can wear that looks cool, that allows them to, you know, communicate with a certain number of friends and family members, but doesn’t open them up to, well, everything that the Web has to offer.
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: And I would even challenge that further, Stephen, by saying a Ready, Set Smartphone. What about just a regular cell phone? Does your child actually need access to to the Web? You know, they may not if it’s just for phone calls and for texting, you know, a flip phone will work quite well. It also will not cause a lot of I won’t say bullying, but a lot of other kids looking at what you have and what you don’t have.So I think that, you know, it’s for each family to to really decide their way what’s going to work for them within their own means as well.
[Stephen Balkam]: And, you know, this is a particularly good time of year, the back to school moment, when it’s a good time to reassess what the rules of the road are. We have a family safety contract, which hopefully we’ll be able to put the link up, and a device card if you’re buying your kid their first tablet or their first phone, please go through what the rules are prior to handing them, because once you’ve handed it to them, it’s pretty much it’s very hard to, as it were, get it back.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: And it’s Christmas in August if you go through the rules before you get them the device, because they will agree to anything at that point.
[Stephen Balkam]: Just make sure that there are consequences too, because there are consequences. And maybe that’s taking the phone away for 24 hours or whatever, then they will just simply ignore what the rules are.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: That’s right. We do have some questions about balancing monitoring and privacy for kids. And I think one of the things I want to sort of insert into that question is that I think this is a very different issue with different age children.
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: Exactly. And I was also going to say it’s a different issue, Europe versus the United States, as Stephen mentioned in the very beginning with children’s rights and parent’s rights. So for me, here in Europe, we might say, yes, children’s rights, children’s rights, but it’s according to their aptitude, their age, their capacity. We are not saying that a 16 year old is the same as a 6 year old, so let’s just go for it, children have these rights and rights. No, it’s a little bit more nuanced than that. And so parents need to be involved, whether we’re talking 6, 16, 26, they need to be, they need to be there.
[Stephen Balkam]: Yeah. We like to think of it as a continuum because, you know, if you think about it, a newborn baby has zero privacy rights. And I would say that’s probably still true at 7. But when a child or a minor is 17 and a half, does she not have some right to privacy from her parents, particularly if she’s exploring her sexuality, or her politics, or her religion? Yes, she should have some rights. So let’s think of it as a, as a continuum or as a a gradual upswing of a curve. And, you know, unfortunately, we’re seeing kind of retrograde legislation going on in this country, which is shutting down kids’ rights in some cases.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Yeah, this is a really important issue. I think the issue of privacy versus monitoring kids and it’s complex because of a different age kids and because of different countries and different approaches and different laws. And I suspect that during the entire group conversation a little later on in this webinar, that’s going to be something we’re all going to revisit. That’s my suspicion. Thank you so much, Elizabeth and Stephen, you two are fascinating and it’s wonderful having a conversation with you. We’re going to move on now to our next speaker, who is Dr. Meryl Alper. There’s Dr. Alper. Hello, Meryl. Dr. Meryl Alper, excuse me, is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, where she researches the social and cultural implications of communication technologies, with a focus on disability, digital media and children and families’ tech use. Her latest book, Kids Across the Spectrums: Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age, explores the often misunderstood technology practices of young people on the autism spectrum, as well as what it means to be social in a hyper-mediated society. Interesting word, Meryl, hyper-mediated. I’m really interested to hear what you have to say. Please take it away.
[Dr. Meryl Alper]: I’ll just mention that I mean, everything is media. Nothing is not media these days. And so when we think about even something like a smartphone, the fact that it is a phone, but it’s everything else, too. And so thinking about how today’s kids but even today’s adults can often take that for granted. So I will share my screen now with you all. So, yes, so at Northeastern, I teach classes primarily on youth and communication technology and on mobile communication. And I really love when these worlds cross. And initially I think, when I was asked to do this talk that some of the framing was around diverse kids and before I even sort of get into neurodivergent kids and specificities around their use, just to add some other texture to the discussion about diversity, kids are diverse in many ways. There’s lots of considerations when it comes to their relationship to phones and when might, for example, be kids who are separated from their parents for various reasons, kids with divorced or separated parents, kids whose parents, if you work in another country for, you know, in order to support their household. And so there’s some remote parenting happening. It’s really in many levels, not one size fits all when we think about the intersections of things like country of origin, race, gender and so forth. So within that, I’m going to bring to the discussion here a discussion of disability and supporting smartphone use for neurodivergent kids. Now who am I? So, yes, I have a new book out, Kids across the Spectrums: Growing up Autistic in the Digital Age from MIT Press and it’s an ethnographic study of what young people, and I focus on kids ages 3 to 13 on the spectrum, are doing with media and technology in their everyday lives, and that includes mobile devices. And that my approach this work is definitely rooted in my own background in the children’s media industry. So not just as a researcher in academia, but also a researcher trying to make the best possible media for kids to learn from. So whether that’s at Sesame Workshop or Nick Junior or some current work with PBS Kids on making digital experiences inclusive.So before talking about considerations for smartphone use that might be similar or different for neurodivergent kids, I think it’s important to set the stage for who I’m talking about. So neurodivergent is a word that basically describes people who are wired differently than those considered to be neurologically typical, and I should say like myself. There’s several conditions that might fall under the header of neurodivergence, but autism and ADHD are two of the major ones. And being divergent,t being neurodivergent can come with both strengths, like unique approaches to problem solving, and challenges, such as with social communication and a heightened risk of anxiety. Those challenges, though, I think it’s really important to frame it, don’t just have to do with your individual and how who they are biologically, neurologically, but also the physical and social environment around them that can itself be disabling or make things more challenging. So, for example, research shows that autistic children largely want to make and maintain friendships, but can find that actually that gets harder to do starting in middle school, when social stigma from peers can be harder to overcome interpersonally than it was in the younger grades. So the inflection point here of when those challenges socially start to get maybe get to be felt more is also around this same time of when a phone or desire to have a phone might be considered. So what does their tech use look like? Turns out not necessarily so different from neurotypical kids. The things though, that make their their use different can can have to do with all these other aspects of difference I mentioned like, social class and parent modeling, all of those the safety of their neighborhoods and how that affects the time they spend with media.It isn’t just being neurodivergent on its own necessarily. But so these kids are obviously, or maybe not so obviously, using FaceTime, watching YouTube, doing Google searches. How they use these tools, though, can vary significantly depending on lots of factors, whether it’s co-occurring conditions, like if they rely on speech alone to communicate or if they also have an intellectual disability they may like, one kid in my research actually prefer talking on the phone than texting because the social cues are much richer and easier to comprehend via voice than texting, which unless you are adding lots and lots of emoji, which can be a kind of an access tool for these kids and what it means when a friend is saying come over to my house, do they really mean that? Are they just sort of saying that for another time? All these things can be potentially more confusing via text than on the phone. Some research says that they do spend more time with media, especially video games, and that’s for some important reasons, like social connections that games can provide them in unique ways. But those stats, I should say, are a little bit skewed because of gender. More boys tend to be diagnosed with autism than girls for a host of reasons. So some unique considerations for parents of neurodivergent kids and thinking about getting their child a mobile communmication device. One of these and I say mobile communication device to be inclusive of objects like smartwatches. So whether a smartphone is the right device at all, or perhaps a smartwatch, an autistic child, though, might have sensory sensitivities that can make me a wearing a smartwatch challenging. The parents might still have really valid concerns about their autistic child not being able to be located, finding themselves in a very dangerous situation that the parent isn’t there to see. And so being able to locate them might not be being a helicopter parent, but it could be legitimately lifesaving. So these challenges of rights and safety and privacy and where these things can come together can be extremely complicated, especially as a child gets older. Another concern as others have mentioned, is sleep. So sleep can be really complex for autistic kids who might already start off with some dysregulation. So, you know, is this a child for whom electronics in general are related to their lack of sleep or sleep disruption, be it a laptop or a personal gaming device? Or are they from the get-go already disrupting, maybe as a parent, your early morning sleep? And a device, you know, for better or for worse, could occupy them at 4:30 in the morning instead of waking you up. These are choices that parents are making all the time, making choices about, okay, if the child doesn’t access to their device, maybe you utilize on an Apple device the downtime feature so that even if they do have the physical device, the software is going to sleep, even if the device isn’t necessarily. So there are opportunities that are also born of having for a kid, a neurodivergent kid having their own, their own smartphone. But it can depend a lot on their developmental age and their ability to manage settings that could otherwise compromise their safety. So research shows that while adolescents on the spectrum might actually be more risk averse than non autistic peers, they also have more challenges in navigating privacy settings, such as blocking unwanted contacts. Another unique consideration involves accessibility. So a phone might not just be for social purposes, but also task lists, calendars, reminders. So that’s really important for kids with ADHD and for speaking too. So how do you support success? I know I’m running a little bit over. So one tip is to continually review privacy and safety settings and do it together. It’s not just the one time that you get the phone or you give it to them. For example, notifications, not knowing how to turn notifications off and those notifications potentially bringing unwanted material to a kid. And tapping into trusted members of a child’s care team for additional support. Maybe, maybe those therapists have some additional tips that are particularly catered to your child if they’re a trusted individual for your child. And lastly, kids [unintelligible] come up with the discussion about parent and child rights. Kids with disabilities have a lot of decisions made for them, so it’s really important to find ways to give them choices and respect their agency and how they present themselves online and what interest they’d like to pursue. So with that, that’s that’s kind of the brief segment of what I have to share. But there’s lots more in the book which you can find. It’s also freely available from MIT press, I should say, at least digitally. If you go to this link, that’s it, thanks.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: That’s wonderful. What a great resource. Thank you so much, Meryl. And I’m sure we’re going to have more questions for you as we bring the whole group back. One question that I think has come in from parents and I think it’s a very important question, is how how do you talk to kids who may have challenges about really having the social skills or the cognitive abilities to understand concepts like Internet safety or, you know, other kinds of rules but still desperately want to go online? Have you thought about that?
[Dr. Meryl Alper]: Yeah so I think as concrete as you can get and less sort of speaking in these general terms, you know, just make sure that you keep your information private, trying to find activities. So I think Common Sense Media has some really, really robust materials around things like digital citizenship and the more active and the more engaged, but also it could be for some of these kids, the more specific, depending on the child, presume that they have some very specialized interests. If they’re, have a focused interest as some kids on the spectrum do. Can you utilize that interest to be like, okay, you’re really interested in finding information about this one particular fandom online? Okay, how do we navigate those communities online? How do we search for that material? You know, what apps on your phone you’re using to connect with those people. Doing it through the lens of that interest is going to be much more useful than in this general abstract way.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Great tip. Thank you so much. Wonderful. Very interesting work. Now I want to transition to a group discussion and Q&A. And thank you, everybody for coming back on camera. And there are some questions that have been put to the group in general that I’d love to hear people’s thoughts about. One of them is, are there specific milestones that you can watch for that parents can sort of use when they’re thinking about making decisions such as giving a child a device or, you know, giving them the watch that Stephen talked about, or allowing them to take their device with them when they go places? Like making these decisions that you’re sort of constantly having to do as a parent, are there specific indicators or milestones that could be useful? Anybody have any thoughts?
[Dr. Devorah Heitner]: A huge one is a kid either transporting themselves around your local community on transit or bike independently beyond your neighborhood. Like I think I don’t think a kid in most communities needs a phone to be in their own neighborhood or hopefully not in their own backyard or their own maybe to walk to school. I think a lot of parents are like, I must get my kid a phone to walk to school. And then I’m like, how far is school? And they’re like three blocks. And I’m like, I think your kid could be okay. Like you could trust the community enough and we don’t want to create this world where kids are in so much peril walking three blocks that like no one would help them if they fell off their bike and they would just be, you know, on their own and, right. But a kid who’s taking three buses, you know, a kid who has sibling care responsibilities after school, a kid who’s getting paid to babysit other kids, a kid who’s going to be home alone. Like those are all situations, I will say like in the in the early days of the pandemic, when my husband and I realized that we needed to leave the house sometimes and leave our kid alone, was when we decided to think about a phone because we didn’t have a house phone, right. And so there was just a pragmatic safety issue of like, is it safer for him to be home alone with nothing, or is it safer for him to have a device where he can at least call 911 if the house is burning down, right? And so those are just some things to think about. I would also look at independently making their own lunch, completing some work. And again, these are neurotypical benchmarks. And I think those would those potentially would look different for a kid on the spectrum or a kid who’s neurodivergent. But I think for a neurotypical kid, those would be some of the benchmarks. And the other one is if you as the parent are literally the conduit, like if all their friends are texting you to hang out, like how long can you tolerate being getting 11 and 12 year olds texting you all day? If your kid is like a social butterfly and you’re saying, no, no, no on a phone. And I think a lot of parents do kind of cave because of that. But I do think what’s the alternative? Like, are your kids friends supposed to send a carrier pigeon? Like if you don’t have a house phone and they don’t know Morse code? Like what are your kids supposed to do to make plans? And we do want kids to make social plans because I can tell you, as a parent of a kid who’s just starting high school, it’s too late. Like, I can’t make social plans for my kid, right?
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Right. Do other people have any thoughts?
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: Yeah, I’m going to jump in. Just seeing some of the things that the parents have mentioned in my own community, they’ve talked about emotional regulation, you know, is their child able to handle things that have been said or not said in the smartphone, the text messages, etc.? Are they are they responsible? I think Devorah really hit on that as well. Are they responsible, do they understand privacy, can they handle time management? I think also, do they have social skills? Because are they going to be, you know, how are they going to be texting? What’s going on? And none of this means that if your child doesn’t have these things that they shouldn’t have a smartphone. It just means you can step in and help them a little bit better.But I think those are some of the four or five things that we that I’ve seen regularly come up.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: That’s great. And actually I can follow up on that a little bit. In our research, one of the things that we have found is when kids are able to handle, when they have emotional regulation and other things Elizabeth just pointed out, and they’re able to handle conversations about having their own device. You know, many kids become very upset if you begin to talk to them about things like limit setting or other issues that might come up that you want to talk about before they have a device. So sort of gauge how they’re handling these conversations. Are they calm? Are they respectful? Do they understand why there have to be some rules? You know, those are all good indications that a child is more ready. On the other hand, if they’re telling you that you’re horrible and stomping off to their room, then they might not have the emotional regulation yet to really handle this very complex device. Meryl, you had another thought?
[Dr. Meryl Alper]: Yeah, I mean, I also think about it relative to what other responsibilities they have at home or what other things, do they lose things all the time? I mean, like, yes, you can locate the phone, but I think you have to think about relative to what other because if this is going to be if you’re going to, this is going to be the first thing, you’re going to get, are you okay with this thing being lost? I don’t think most parents are okay with an $800 iPhone being lost. So what are the scalable, I think scaffolded approaches to responsibility that lead up to a phone not as like the entry point, but how else has that been? And not just to say you’re on your own and doing that, but how do you scaffold and practice those other forms of responsibility, those other not just the charging of the phone, but everything that comes with it in the smaller, lower stakes ways?
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: In general, it’s a good idea to marry together the concept of privileges and responsibilities, which is exactly what Meryl was just talking about, the idea that as you have more responsibilities, you have more privileges, and those two things increase and decrease together. So as you get older, you may have the privilege of having a device, but you’re going to have more responsibilities too, sort of nothing in life is free.That kind of thing. Let’s go on. Did you have a thought, Stephen?
[Stephen Balkam]: Yeah, as much as and I’m a great proponent for kids rights, I also know how isolating it can be to be a parent sometimes, you know, when a child constantly is saying to you, everyone in my class has an X, Y, or Z. You know, there’s a, there’s a really interesting organization called Wait Until Eighth, which is the concept of waiting till eighth grade to get your kid a smartphone. And you do that through a sort of social compact with other parents in the school. So that’s that’s a real help for parents who are feeling isolated or under a lot of pressure.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Huge help.
[Stephen Balkam]: Also working with PTA’s is particularly with elementary school kid aged parents. They have come up sometimes in our conversations with voluntary curfews that they have worked out amongst themselves, that it 8:00 or 9:00 or 10:00, whatever o’clock, they come up with everyone in that class or everyone in that school has agreed that their phones or their devices will be closed off. So it’s not the one parent who’s the worst parent in the world. It’s just that’s what every everyone is now doing. So it’s actually doing that, ‘everyone is,’ phrase goes back to your child as opposed to being the recipient of it.
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: I absolutely love that, Stephen, because that’s something that we’ve seen here in Europe as well. But I would even go further and say, you don’t have to just do this for smartphones, meaning that parents in any grade, any class, if you can get together to decide what the end of the year gift or the holiday gift is going to be for the teacher, then you can get together to say, okay, our children are going to perhaps smartphones at this age, social media at that age, online gaming at this age, or, you know, the curfew for that group stuff is at this time.
I mean, parents are a community and those parent teacher associations are invaluable. So use them and create some plans.
[Stephen Balkam]: Right.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: I’ve seen some wonderful experiences with parents who get together as a group to enact limitations and or to consider together as a group how to do things like when should we let all our kids get an Instagram account, or when should we get them a smartphone? And doing it as a group really helps. It really gives you as a parent some backup. And just so parents know, I have been studying kids since like 2010, asking them if they were the only ones who didn’t have a cell phone. And every year kids, there are kids who don’t get a device from their parents until like college. So whatever you’re hearing from your kids, you are not the only one. Having said that, I still understand why parents want to be careful about not having kids miss out on social stuff. Here’s another question.
[Dr. Devorah Heitner]: I think. I think not having a phone when you’re in high school would be similar at this point to having grown up in a home where your parents didn’t have a landline. I just want to put that out there. Like, I really do think that for a high school kid, like my kid’s doing debate, there’s a group text that, the cross-country, he’s expected to text his coach if he’s not there and he would literally have to like walk home, use my phone and text me. So I’m just going to piggyback on that a little bit and say like, a high school student, to not have a phone would be like, if you grew up in a household that didn’t have a landline. And I really think that’s how significant a communication choice you’re making. So yes, you can make that choice, but you are setting your kid up to be in a pretty profoundly disconnected situation, if they cannot text.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Devorah, I totally agree with you. I agree there are parents who make that choice.
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: I agree I have to jump in just for this socioeconomic stuff here, Devorah, because people who can’t afford those landlines when they were growing up and there are people who can’t afford the phones, which are why there are other alternatives, as Stephen was mentioning, with with watches and other things. So I just want to put that out there that, you know, just as we’re talking about neurodiverse, neurotypical, let’s add in the socioeconomic aspects as well.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Absolutely. Absolutely. One interesting question or sort of set of questions that we’ve gotten is, what about split households? Some kids have two parents and two different households and they have very different rules. Any thoughts about that situation?
[Dr. Meryl Alper]: Just to bring up also, I mean, as I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, but kind of ran through really truly thinking very inclusively about families that are globally dispersed. So you have lots of kids around the world where their parent does not live with them because their parent works in another country to support their household. And the way that they may access the Internet in their home is because they do not have a landline, they do not have the Internet in their home. They have a phone, and the phone is how they use the Internet. And that actually is true for lots of folks in United States. You know, thinking about race, thinking socioeconomically, where the intersections are, there is no, or if there was during COVID, maybe there was a Chromebook or something that was it was a hotspot, but then that went away, or that broke, or the family discontinued it. So when we think about that that layer and then you add that on top of that, the sort of distance and the separation, it is thinking of it on very specific level, for whom is this not just a need to have, but is there primary way of doing homework of of accessing their what they need for school the next day. And that’s really important. In addition to staying connected with their loved ones.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: I think that all kinds of parenting decisions come up today that haven’t really been around before, and I think that’s one of the difficulties that we all face as parents that we have new decisions to make. Suppose that you want to put on a rule about your child’s screen use and they don’t do it at night, but they have grandparents who live in another country and that’s the only time that they can talk. You know, these things can be tricky. I think it can be really difficult. But what about in a split situation where kids are not necessarily geographically distant, but they have parents who just have very different rules? Any thoughts about how to navigate that awkwardness or tips that you can give for navigating that that might be helpful?
[Stephen Balkam]: Just stay married, people, you don’t want to. I, yeah, having lived in a split family before and seeing some pretty big differences, I just think that the level of communication just becomes that much more important between the two sets of parents or stepparents or whatever you want to call the different caregivers. Kids latch on pretty quickly that there are different rules at dad’s house or mom’s house or whatever. They don’t necessarily like it, but they do, if it’s explained to them in a reasonable way. But, you know, my experience of a stepfamily was pre iPhones, and so we didn’t have that technology hand grenade in the middle of it. We had enough hand grenades, as it were, as for bedtimes and, what you could and couldn’t eat and clothes to wear and all that stuff. But it really gets down to communication between the various adults involved.
[Dr. Meryl Alper]: I will say for for those for kids having kind of done this ethnographic work and again, it can be the same for neurodivergent kids of diverse parents too, that that object can become even more important because it is a constant that it’s always with you. You can be in another place where you have other clothes, other things that are markers of who you are. But it’s this one object that goes between the two places, so the limits on them can be much, much harder because it it becomes your, you know, the thing that you are always with.
[Dr. Devorah Heitner]: I just want to add that I do think mediated agreements should include technology, and that’s a very important thing. But I’ve also talked to a lot of families where the adults are still living together under one roof and the kids have different rules with different parents. So that’s also something that got brought up in one of the questions when I was speaking earlier. So like, what if you’re not on the same page as your co-parent? And I believe those two people were living in the same house. So I think it can be really important, obviously, especially in a two household situation, to have it be mediated. But even in one household, the parents may need to get on the same page. You definitely don’t want to surprise the other parent with a new gaming device or phone.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: I think a tip that can sometimes be helpful when you’re doing what everybody here is talking about, which is discussing it with the other parent, is to focus on goals first before you focus on rules, because you can easily come up with very different rules. But if your goal is to avoid certain situations or to make sure the kids aren’t, you know, gaming with strangers, whatever your goal is, if you start with that, it may be easier to come to a place where you have even slightly different rules, but you agree that that’s the goal of the rules. And, you know, I sometimes find that parents are more likely to share goals than they are to want to share specific rules. I don’t know if other people have run across that.
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: Yeah. And it’s definitely more positive, right? And it’s about that way of the way we talk with younger children, right, when we’re saying you don’t ask them, do you want this? You ask them, do you want this or that? Right. And that sort of I think it helps. It helps. And so it’s those types of parenting tricks, I think that do get you the better result. And so I really agree with you, Elizabeth. I like that, goals rather than rules.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: One more question that came up, which I think is interesting. It’s kind of right up my wheelhouse, but I’m very interested to hear what the panel thinks. Tips on how to deal with bullying in group texts or online. Any thoughts? Maybe it’s too specific to me.
[Dr. Meryl Alper]: So I think one thing that.
[Dr. Devorah Heitner]: In addition to [unintelligible] the scope that I talked about a little bit earlier, we can also talk about giving our kids criteria for leaving a group text, especially if it’s someplace they can’t be safe and if it’s causing them stress. The problem is kids will have disconnection stress as well. They’ll worry about if everyone’s talking mean in the group text and get out of the group text, will they talk in a mean way about me? So we need to give kids some strategies for dealing with that and also strategies for not sharing with other people what’s said about them. Like a lot of kids will screenshot what’s said about others and share with them. So there’s just, I do think just telling a kid to get out isn’t enough. They’re going to need some support and maybe even a substitute activity to help them take their mind off of it.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Meryl?
[Dr. Meryl Alper]: I think it’s really important to, when they say, if a kid says I’m being, there’s bullying, is to find out really what they mean. Like what are the specific activities or actions or things that they see because it could be something like relatively benign, like, oh, this person disagreed with me on liking this thing. And I, you know, I don’t like it, I think this is better. Okay. That’s not bullying. That’s a disagreement. How can you, you know, if you were going to do that face to face as opposed to on the phone, how would that conversation have gone differently? You can work through those things. Whereas the things that I’ve seen in my research, children, bullying is horrible, horrible things like, you should not be alive. You know, these are really serious things. And that for a certain child, that being said, can be truly something that is life threatening. So I think finding out when a kid reports something is to really understand what that is in the same way that you would for a littler kid when they say, oh, I saw this, I watched this movie and I’m scared. Well, what about it scared you? So find out really what they mean, because as an adult, you might have one idea of what that is, but hearing it from them or finding out what it is could be two completely different things.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Great points, Meryl. And we actually do find in our studies that kids do overuse the term. And they’re not doing it to be bad or naughty. They’re doing it because they’re trying to engage with adults. They’re trying, they want the adults to sort of listen to what they’re saying. They’re saying something hurt my feelings or something bothered me or something worried me or something scared me. And I think really getting down to the details is going to be incredibly important, both for understanding your child’s experience and for understanding how to help them, you know. Different situations are going to require different kinds of thinking. What do people think about the sort of addictive algorithms that social media companies utilize? There are some, there’s a question about that from our participants. Thinking about how to talk to kids about that, how to protect them from that. What do people think?
[Dr. Meryl Alper]: I think I see that related, I think to another question that came in about online pornography and about the kinds of content that even if children aren’t seeking out, finds them online. So I think I had actually in my talk, brushed over it where I mentioned there was a kid who had found something upsetting online because he was,through his phone and it was actually Pokémon porn. So like kind of stuff that’s, you know, it’s animated. Oh, but it’s not in way that you think it’s going to be, which can be for some of these kids really cognitively confusing. An adult might find it funny but for a kid it could be incredibly upsetting. So finding out what it is. I don’t have any immediate solutions, but I know in that case, at least when it did involve a kid who already had some emotional regulation issues, the parents were at a loss and did go to that child’s therapist to find out what was a way that they could work through that together. Not every child, though, needs to or is going to see a therapist at all. But but having those open conversations so that a kid is is, where I thought in that family was really luckily that the child could tell their parent. They did reach a point where that conversation was there. And that’s really not not really, I don’t think the case for most families.
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: Yeah, I just want to jump on to that and really stress this this idea of parental support, because as Meryl said, you know, inappropriate content is there. And I know that the person asked a question about pornography and smartphones, but please be aware that even if you lock down your child’s smartphone, they can see that same stuff on somebody else’s smartphone that’s sitting right next to them or on their tablet or whatnot. So it really is about you having those conversations and letting them know. And as Devorah had mentioned earlier about giving your child strategies about, oh, I know my mother would kill me if she knew that I saw that. My boys have been using that one for years and it works very well. My mom is a lawyer, if she knew you showed me that. But give them something. And it’s the same way that we prepare our children to go to a park. And, you know, what do you do if you can have those same conversations about what do you do if you see something that makes your stomach feel icky, you don’t have to say these words about pornography or, you know, other things that are horrific to really scare your children, but you can let them know if it’s something uncomfortable.
What can they do?
[Stephen Balkam]: Yeah, a psychologist at a recent conference said if you lose it, your kids won’t get it. So in other words, you contain and control your worst fears, because that’s really probably the number one job of a parent, particularly as a kid gets older and starts driving. And, you know, all the other terrifying things that they end up doing. Get a hold of yourself and stay centered. That leaves the lines of communication open and they’re more likely to come back and talk to you about it.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: I think those conversations are incredibly important. I think that in many cases they are what we have, right, as parents, those conversations, and as Meryl pointed out, keeping those the line of communication open. Parents have often, often asked me, how do I stop my child from ever seeing something? And the answer is, there is no way in this world that you can guarantee 100% that your kids won’t see something. You can lock down your your own network, you can lock down your kids devices. But as Elizabeth pointed out, there are devices and networks everywhere. And the idea that you can shield kids from this is probably not always possible. But what we always have are those conversations with kids, not so they know everything, but also so they know you’re willing to talk about it, so they know they can come to you if something weird or icky or scary has happened. And I do think that’s really, really important. Do you guys have any thoughts about sort of talking to kids about the algorithms that companies utilize? Any thoughts about that?
[Dr. Devorah Heitner]: A lot of the teenagers that I interviewed for Growing up in Public were aware that the algorithm could feed them some pretty toxic content, and they were, some of them intentionally curating their own feeds against that, like with body positive or identity supporting. You know, if you follow enough like identity supporting influencers, you’re going to sort of skew in that direction. And I think it’s important to talk with kids also about the sort of shadow areas to the Internet. So if you follow this kind of content that’s sort of edgy, you might get fed some misogynist or white supremacist content. If you follow fitness content, you’re just very adjacent to toxic diet content, which is dangerous for children, or maybe everyone. So I think it’s really important to talk to kids about sort of categories of content that are adjacent to dangerous categories and with with the pornography question, because I also get that a lot, I think it’s also important to just buy yourself some time. And one technique I would suggest to parents is just saying, I’m so glad you asked. Like while you’re collecting your panic about answering the question, because you really are glad that they asked because if they didn’t ask you, they’re going to ask Alexa or Siri or Google about that sex position or word that they heard that has to do with sex in some way and once they Google that, they’re going down to the rabbit hole to see some things they can never unsee. So I think, you know, proactive sex education and puberty education is also a good inoculation against porn.
[Stephen Balkam]: I you know, as much as I’m about empowering parents to confidently navigate the Web with their kids, there is such an important role, obviously, for government and for the industry players themselves. So we have the Digital Services Act in the in the EU, which is starting to come through, which will be dealing with a lot of harmful content issues. The online safety bill in the UK will have ripple effects here in the U.S. once it’s into law. And we must keep telling the service providers and the app developers and so on that they have got to get their act together and improve the kind of experiences that our kids are are, you know, encountering. The Web was not designed with children in mind, that’s for sure. What was the famous song back in the nineties? You know, the Web is for porn, which was kind of the cute little jingley song. And actually in the late nineties, porn on the on the web was pretty tame compared to what we’re seeing now. So we’ve we’ve got to keep the responsibility on the on the industry players themselves as well as look to government for appropriate regulation that’s based on the science and the research that talks about actual harms.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: That’s great. And it’s really helpful, I think, to have the sort of international perspective because we can learn from how other countries are dealing with this and they can learn from us and and that can be very, very helpful. Another issue that I think might be really, that came up in the questions that I think is really interesting, is the whole question of, suppose the cat is already out of the bag. Suppose you’ve already given your child their device. How do you handle sort of resetting things? Suppose you’re at this webinar and you’re getting some ideas and some tips and you think, oh, I think I’d like to do that. I think I’d like to have the devices charge in my bedroom or the router in my bedroom, like Stephen thought. How do I introduce this now that I’ve already set up some rules? Any, any thoughts? Meryl?
[Dr. Meryl Alper]: I think you want to start the place of asking a kid, well, what do you think is going well with how you’re using things? I think you want to you want to start off with getting, putting your kid in a place where they’re confident, where they feel like, hey, like I’m doing a good job with this. I’ve handled this responsibly. And then like, what could be better? So I think you want to, you always want to build confidence and not undermine whatever growth or maturity your kid is showing with their use of a phone. You want to reward that. You don’t just automatically want to cut them down. And so I think that that that sort of framing is important to have.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: What else? Any other thoughts?
[Dr. Devorah Heitner]: I think you can work with a third party to do a reset. If it’s a serious reset, like you’re really, the kid is struggling with mental health and is already getting therapeutic support. So obviously, as Meryl said, not every kid is going to have a therapist or a school counselor. But I mean, I just spoke to 10,000 SRO’s in Virginia and they said parents are coming to the school resource officer begging that the school resource officer to take away a kid’s phone. If a parent is desperate enough to go to the armed school resource officer and say the fights at home that I’m having with my kid are so serious that I’m asking the school cop to take my kid’s phone away, that’s a kid like that’s a family that needs some kind of support. That’s a family where the parents are really struggling. And I think we’re seeing a lot of that. And frankly, schools are sending home devices that they’re not supporting, parents are as well. So even if a parent doesn’t have a phone and, you know, it was brought up like not every family can afford a phone, but I mean, I’m in a Title I school district where there’s free Wi-Fi in the community and every kid gets a free Chromebook. That’s still a device that parents are then sometimes desperately going to someone at school and saying, help, my kid is using this in a way that I can’t deal with and support so, I mean, I think what Stephen’s point is, is really important as well that that industry does need to be responsive. You know, if a parent sends a takedown notice to Instagram and they don’t respond right, or if a parent lets a site know, hey, my kid’s using the site and they’re underage and I want their account taken down and that app doesn’t respond, those things are all real problems, and that’s not setting parents up for success. So we need to help everyone in that situation. I have tremendous compassion for the parent going to that school resource officer, desperate, and I think we need a lot of supports in the community for families in that situation.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Elizabeth, any thoughts?
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: Yeah, I was just going to add, thank you Devorah for bringing this up about the resource officer, is that here in Europe, we have incredible resources with Better Internet for Kids. And so we have the whole Insafe network, which is helplines in 27 European countries. And so there if there is a problem, even tech problems with the phone, you can call them and they will help you out, if you’re having that takedown and rather than you trying to call Instagram Tik Tok, Snapchat, Roblox for yourself, you just call the helpline and they have a like a little speed red phone number into these tech companies which will help them to help you. And it goes a bit faster. So there are resources out there. But for me, I’ve always found the problem is not that there are a lack of resources, but that parents don’t know which ones at what time and having the right information at the right time.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Great. Great tips.
[Stephen Balkam]: I would add, don’t forget to involve the kids in the rule setting itself. So, you know, again, back to school is a perfect time. We’re going to sit down. You guys are going into third grade or eighth grade or whatever grade. We just need to reassess where we got to. And just for instance, our own online safety contract that we have, the most important part of that contract is the blank space, the blank lines that we leave for parents and kids themselves to come up with ideas and rules. And we even found that by saying, okay, if you break that rule, what do you think should be the punishment? And we would, my wife and I would write down our efforts or we’d leave our daughter to write down her. And sometimes her answer was even more severe than our own. And you or, and use siblings as well. Siblings are incredibly helpful, particularly the older ones, and they’re full of ideas about how to lock things down for the younger ones. But they can often be a kind of just an additional support, a set of eyes and ears in the house.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Those are great tips, Stephen. And, you know, one of the things that we have found is that kids can sometimes kind of be saturated with the idea of safety, but they can be very receptive to the idea of health. And so sometimes posing things not so much as, you know, what rules will keep you safe, but also what rules keep you healthy. How can we focus our rules so that you have time to play outside, so that you have time to help us cook dinner, so that you have time to play games with the family so that we have a Sunday now and then where we all put our devices away and go for a hike together. Anything like that, where you’re sort of emphasizing to them that, yes, we’re all going to have to live with technology, but we also have to have a life and we have to be healthy and that means we have to have relationships and mental health and we have to talk with each other and and all these other things. We are almost out of time. So I wonder if people could briefly, please keep it brief, come up with their last thoughts, things for people to take away, and then we will turn it back over to Kris. Meryl, why don’t we start with you?
[Dr. Meryl Alper]: So I think my takeaway, if I’m speaking, I guess, directly to parents of kids who for various reasons have challenges at school related to being neurodivergent or their mental health, to know that you are not alone, it can be a very isolating experience. There are resources available to you, but to not panic. I think it’s really easy to press the literal panic button, because we’re talking about phones, that how you parent is not irreversible and if you make a mistake, you can fix it.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: That’s great. Very reassuring. Devorah, brief thoughts?
[Dr. Devorah Heitner]: I think mentoring over monitoring is really important. So those conversations with kids are crucial. Listening to other people and yes, talking to the other adults in your life, reaching out to librarians, folks at school, there are a lot of folks who probably have heard of that app if you haven’t and not feeling like you have to do everything yourself and kind of be panicking in isolation, I think is very important.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Terrific. Elizabeth?
[Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov]: Yep. I would say communication, competence, critical thinking and always, always community. Just as when you had a baby and you were trying to decide what’s the first food, you ask other parents talk with them, community.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Great tip. Stephen, last thoughts?
[Stephen Balkam]: Kids will do what you do, not what you tell them to do. So don’t use your phone as an alarm clock, which means that’s going to be the first thing you see as you wake up, the last thing you look at before you go to bed. They’ll copy you straight away and they’ll want their devices in their bedroom. So, there you go.
[Dr. Elizabeth Englander]: Great, great tips. Everyone, thank you so much. What a fantastic panel that you’ve all just been so interesting and bringing up wonderful points and counterpoints. And I think it also really served well that there were a lot of things that we underscored that we all agreed on and that really can give some strength and power to it. There are a lot of resources for our attendees in the chat. I know there are a number of books and articles and I really encourage people to give things a look. There are resources out there and you know, things that you can read with your kids and that can really help educate them. Now I am going to turn it back over to Kris.
[Kris Perry]: Thanks, Elizabeth. And thank you to the panel today for the abundance of information and recommendations that you shared with all of us. Thank you as well to our Zoom audience for joining us and submitting many great questions. The recording of today’s session will be available on YouTube next week and you’ll receive an email as soon as it’s available. We would love to hear your feedback on today’s session, so please just take a few minutes to complete the survey provided as you leave. To learn more about digital media and child development or the work of the institute, check out our Website at childrenandscreens.com. Follow us on these platforms and subscribe to our YouTube channel. We hope you will join us again next week for Screen Extremes, Children and Digital Addictions on Thursday, August 31st. Many of you had questions today about addictive patterns of use, and this webinar will address many of those questions and more on problematic use and how to help. Thank you.