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Technology has become a powerful tool that fosters creativity and connection among young people, but can also become a source of distress and even abuse. Nearly half of all teens have experienced cyberbullying according to the Pew Research Center, and the majority of teens have seen hate-based content online. In response to the growing crisis, last year the Surgeon General issued a mental health advisory on the dangers of social media for youth. 

In our increasingly digital world, the answer is not to eliminate devices. Rather, we must prepare the next generation to use them in ways that are safe, healthy and productive. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month in May, hosted a webinar, “Helping Kids Create a Healthy Relationship with Technology,” featuring educators, authors, parents and experts. 

You can watch the webinar on demand here, and review a few of the panel’s key insights:

Model the behaviors you want to see

Parents may be on a device all day for work, and then find that mindlessly scrolling through a social media feed at the end of the day is one way to decompress. But impressionable kids are watching and internalizing those behaviors. 

Cary K. Perales, Director of Instructional Technology at Corpus Christi Independent School District recommends implementing simple boundaries that everyone in the household can follow, such as no phones in the bedroom at night, and no devices at the dinner table. CEO Lisa O’Masta said her family practices a device-free Sunday once a month – 12 full hours free of screens.

Consider community values

Merve Lapus, VP of Education Outreach & Engagement at Common Sense Education, points out that the values you have in real life are the same ones you want to teach your kids to practice online. Talk to your kids about how to demonstrate values like trust and honesty in their online conduct – while also recognizing that social media platforms are not built to foster those values.

Lapus uses the analogy of a pebble in a pond to explain how one person’s actions online affect a whole community while, at the same time, your child can be impacted indirectly by conduct of others in their online community.

Education is essential

Panelists pointed out that one of the best places to foster those community values for online behavior is at schools. Not only do schools play an important role in teaching students to leverage technology, but in the classroom with peers is where young people create norms and discuss the kind of world they want to create together, says Diana Graber, M.A, author of “Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology” and founder of Cyberwise and Cyber Civics.

Some states mandate digital literacy education, but if your school is not integrating digital skills into the curriculum, then Graber urges you to bring it up with your school leaders.

Perales shared that at Corpus Christi Independent School District, they offer opportunities for not just teachers and staff, but also parents, to learn about digital literacy through the schools. Not only are parents hungry for this kind of help, but some caregivers, especially grandparents, may still be learning the technology themselves.

Teach attention and intention

Dino Ambrosi, founder of the teen-focused digital detox program Project Reboot, says one of the most effective tactics in talking to young people about overuse of devices is helping them understand that the technologies are designed to absorb their time and attention. 

“You’re not the customer, you’re the product that’s being sold,” Ambrosi says. “Kids should be mad.”

Ambrosi points out that this can be a powerful perspective to help your child understand that you are not trying to control their behavior – it’s the technology companies that are trying to control it. Many kids already feel bad about their level of attachment to their devices, and so you want them to feel supported in their efforts to find a healthy balance that’s right for them.

“Don’t be a judge who imposes rules on them without having a conversation about it,” he says. “Be a guide who helps them create their own intentions and holds them to that ideal.”

Celebrate the good

It’s easy to get swept away with headlines about the detrimental effects of social media use. But all of the panelists agree there are many positive aspects of technology, and it’s important to keep those in mind.

“Let’s hone in on what good things are on screens,” said Graber. “Kids are creating things, connecting with others, learning things they aren’t going to learn in school, and on and on.”

Graber suggests next time you are concerned about what your child is doing online, ask them about it: What videos do they like to watch? Which influencers are they following? Then take a look at those yourself – you might be pleasantly surprised by what they are consuming.

Focus on creation & connection

Importantly, students can leverage technology to not just consume, but create media. In Perales’ district, an annual multimedia fair invites K-12 students to submit creations in eight categories, from digital design to music, and then families come out to view and celebrate their students’ digital skills. 

“It’s awesome to see so many kids and their projects,” Perales says. “And to see how every year their work gets better and better.”  She shared an anecdote that a video a second grader made for the local botanical garden ended up being used by the organization as an advertisement.  

For more on the pros and cons of social media, check out Common Sense Media’s new report, “A Double-Edged Sword: How Diverse Communities of Young People Think About the Multifaceted Relationship Between Social Media and Mental Health.”

Ultimately, the experts agree there is no one-size-fits-all approach to having a healthy relationship with technology. As Ambrosi put it, “technology can be a weight vest or a jetpack” for our kids. As educators, parents, and citizens, we can help students develop the habits and skills to ensure at the end of the day, technology is a net benefit for them. Staff Writers Team

Staff Writers

Founded in 1999, provides educators with solutions to prepare their students with critical digital skills. Our web-based curriculum for grades K-12 engages students as they learn keyboarding, online safety, applied productivity tools, computational thinking, coding and more.