Parenting in the Digital Age

Interim Head of School Amy Vorenberg on how technology, phones, and social media shape our children and families.

How do we navigate an environment that feels unavoidable? How do we navigate a landscape that is rapidly changing, year by year, and in some cases even day by day? How do we navigate something that our children are beginning to know more about than us?

These are some of the questions that brought Shore parents and caregivers to the Shore Families Association (SFA) meeting on February 7, 2024, where Interim Head of School Amy Vorenberg took off her administrator hat and gave a talk about raising children in a tech world.

A Felton Media Literacy Scholar with years of experience in the education landscape and a stint in the media industry as a young teacher under her belt, Vorenberg is uniquely positioned through her education and experience to talk through the effects of media on kids, and the challenges that parents and caregivers face in a rapidly evolving digital world.

Watch the recording of the “Parenting in the Digital Age," or read the summary below for key points and takeaways. Please note that this written summary has been edited for clarity in this format.

What is educational programming?

While federal laws around programming have shifted allowing for more content to be considered ‘educational,’ all programming is educational. You have to think of it in that way. Your kids are learning from what they’re watching and engaging with. Whether it's designed to be educational or not, they are learning.

Working with your kids around media is not an unemotional topic

Kids have very strong feelings about what social media represents. It is their social currency which can be a challenging dynamic for kids to navigate, especially as they move through the middle school and early high school years. Don’t think that when you are talking to your child about your rational, reasonable rules or guidelines, that they're not going to respond emotionally. This is not by accident. The media we consume is highly produced by smart creatives to build emotional experiences and as kids are creating content, they too are modeling and trying to do what they see being done. And it's hard and complicated work.

Love it or hate it, social media is here to stay

We are not in a place where we can ignore and pretend that it isn't here. One of the things that strikes me is that more than 4.7 billion people are using some kind of social media according to statistics from 2023. With a world population of 8 billion, more than half of the people in the world have access to, and are using, social media. As parents and caregivers, we are not digital natives and have to open ourselves up to help our children navigate a world they were born into. Even if you don’t allow your child to have or use devices, they will still manage to find a way to use them. This is why it's important to model, mentor, and monitor.

How do you parent through your use of social media?

  • Model - Through our use of our devices, we model to our kids that these devices are important and that they matter, regardless of what you are using them for.
  • Mentor - In addition to teaching your kids how to use media appropriately, tell them your stories about media. One of the most effective things that I've done with kids when they've made mistakes with media, is to tell them other stories about other kids. Mentoring through storytelling and mentoring through normalizing the struggle is really important.
  • Monitor - Know what device you feel comfortable giving your child, what apps are on that device, and what's available to them through that device. Look at what they're doing and let them know that you will be reading their messages as they are family-owned devices. You may think that your child doesn't have access to a chat app, but even when writing a paper through Google Drive, they have the ability to chat. You have to understand the powers of the tool. There is so much you have to monitor, and my biggest point is don't send kids into their bedrooms with devices until you feel comfortable that they know and understand the responsibilities of being a digital citizen.

Vorenberg played a video called ‘The Problem with Parents, Kids, and Social Media’, which is linked here

“Privacy” is actually public, and permanent

Privacy is something that adolescents are seeking. Middle school kids say that Snapchat is their preferred social media. Why? Because of the false idea that one can do or say something online that will disappear and be kept private. We know that's actually not what happens because you can screenshot it, and there are all sorts of ways to make things permanent. It’s hard for kids developmentally to understand the idea that anyone would be interested in their little world enough to look at what they are doing online, so it's important to help them be responsible and to understand that what they put out there is in fact public, permanent, and traceable.

Lean into the relationship you can build with your child around questioning the messages that the media monster is sending

When my daughter Ella was a kid, we did a lot of funny things together like walking around on our tiptoes pretending to be Barbie, questioning why things were the way they were in a playful way. That helped Ella look at certain things that were coming her way such as the constructed concept of beauty and messages around gender norms.

The thing that social media doesn't have is a lot of time. A television show, a movie, a commercial, a TikTok – there's not a lot of time to get a message across. For messages to get across, what the media has to rely on are stereotypes and tropes, because the characters in the background cannot be fully developed in a short amount of time. You have the gift of a ton of time with your kids. So you can question and talk about the things that they are seeing. 

Another thing that's really interesting about media and the effects it has on kids and families is that the more you watch, and the more certain messages bombard you again and again, you actually begin to believe what is a phenomena called mean world syndrome. Mean world syndrome is a bias where people may perceive certain parts of the world to be more dangerous than it actually is. 

Seeing (and hearing) is no longer believing

For thousands of years, we had a paradigm, if you saw it, you could believe it. But in today's world with AI, if you see it, or hear it, you can no longer be sure that you can believe it. This is a whole new frontier.

The right time/age to introduce a smartphone/social media

Ultimately, this is a family decision. Developmentally, we are undertaking a huge experiment with our kids. We don't know, from a brain development perspective, what the long-term effects of using these tools are. Even if you don’t give your child a smartphone, if they have an iPad, or friends with social media, they have access. This again goes back to one of my biggest pieces of advice – monitoring. You would not leave your child alone in the living room with a stranger. Consider the internet and these apps strangers.

Giving children authorship is a good thing

Apps like TikTok are actually giving authorship to children, and that is a good thing. We want kids writing with these digital tools. We want kids to be experimenting with the power of these tools, because the power of these tools is going to lead to success in their future employment. Send them outside to take pictures, send them outside to create something they are really proud of, and decide how you are going to share something. These are the skills of the future. 

The topic of how technology, phones, and social media shape our children and families is complex, but having conversations is a great first step. Remember, we are all navigating this new world together.

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