In our research parents often complain that they don’t know where to turn to for advice about digital media, finding that the old ‘screen time’ rules don’t serve them well in a digital age. This is why we’ve contributed to resources to help guide parents and educators, and why we periodically feature the work of experts who are out there trying to get better and more nuanced messages and advice directly to parents. This week Alicia Blum-Ross interviews Devorah Heitner, founder of Raising Digital Natives, about her book Screenwise: Helping kids survive (and thrive) in their digital world. [Header image credit: Cavalier92 CC BY-NC-ND 2]

Can you tell me a little about how you got into this work?

My doctorate is in media technology and society, and so my training is mostly as a media historian at Northwestern University, Chicago, USA. I wrote my first book about the history of Black public affairs television. I came back to my interest in kids and media when I was teaching as a professor because I taught a class called ‘Kids, media, culture’, where my students did media ethnographies, often of young elementary school children.

My students at that point were in the fairly early cohort for social media, and so I was really intrigued with their experience. Of course, as a media historian I was also picking up on the panic around this stuff that’s in the community, and I became a parent myself in 2009. So I was also noticing behaviours among my own peers, new parents, you know, what were the protocols about sharing Facebook pictures of kids, all these kinds of questions that parents were asking in the early to mid social media period, right before developing an etiquette and some habits around these issues.

I started giving talks to parents, and in 2012 I realised that schools and parents were in fairly dire need for some research-based, non-fear-based, non-panic advice on this topic, and so I left academia and founded Raising Digital Natives.

One thing that comes up a lot in our research and in your book is the idea of ‘networked parenting’. So, you may make a decision for your own child [about digital media] but then your child goes out into the world, for instance, to other kids’ houses for sleepovers. How do you think parents negotiate with other parents about these issues?

I think parents are often very reluctant to negotiate directly about this issue, but they’re very judgemental privately and may talk negatively about other parents, either to their child and say, ‘I can’t believe you could see that at that person’s house’, or to other parents. Like if parent A lets my kid play Grand Theft Auto at age six, I might go to parent B and say negative things about that decision, but I might never bring it up with parent A. What I’m seeing is that people are very reluctant to go directly to their peers and talk to other parents about these issues.

My recent blog post about how to talk to other parents is an example of where you might have a middle school or an older kid and maybe you’re seeing some of their social media and you see something from another kid, but it can also come up when we’re talking in the ‘play date’ age range, where you might feel reluctant to let your child go to another kid’s house if you think the internet access is completely unsupervised, or you think that the games that are being played or the amount of time for access is completely antithetical to your own philosophy of parenting to the point where you don’t want your kid even hanging out there. I think those things are coming up a lot because there is such a variation, and parents feel very reluctant to talk about this stuff.

What would you say to parents who are thinking about installing monitoring software on their kids’ phones?

I think that if you do choose to monitor, it doesn’t absolve you of your strong obligation to mentor. Mentoring is much more crucial than monitoring. Monitoring is optional, but mentoring really isn’t. And so, no matter whether you monitor or not, put that app on their phone or don’t, you must mentor, you must talk with them, you must listen to them and observe them and be engaged with them.

Monitoring could be part of that strategy of engagement, and I would let them know you’re doing it. There’s really no advantage to covertly monitoring your kids, because then you’re in this parenting conundrum where if you see something that concerns you, you can’t really say anything about it, or once you say something, then you’ve given up that you’re monitoring, and then what? What’s the next stop? I don’t really understand the end game for parents who want to covertly monitor kids. I think that parents may be hoping for an insight about their kids’ inner lives, but they’re not going to get that from reading their texts or seeing what websites they’re visiting.

There’s an undercurrent in your book of trying to get parents to connect between what they see with their kids and experiences that they may have had in their own childhoods – things like peer pressure. Do parents respond to this? Or do they stick with the ‘it’s a whole new world’ paradigm?

I think many parents do believe that this is a different world. Like, if they were to compare their generation with their own parents versus, you know, ourselves to our kids, they feel like this is a bigger leap, and there are certainly ways where technology may be changing more. For example, if you have a 12-year-old, a 17-year-old and an 8-year-old, they will all be using possibly very different applications, and possibly having different experiences, whereas in your own sibling group, the TV experience and the telephone experience weren’t so radically different, right?

So I think parents feel like, ‘oh, things are moving so fast’, and that may be accurate in some ways, but I still stand by my argument that many of the experiences in terms of reputation, of relationships, of managing time were just as challenging for us, but with a different set of modalities, so that not being invited to something was still painful, you know, before Snapchat.

One thing that some parents may be thinking about is exposure to unwanted or violent content [at the time of the interview the Facebook Live murder was in the news]. How do you deal with such an open media environment as a parent? And how do you think parents should help their children if they have seen something upsetting?

I think it is quite terrible that our kids can see snuff films. My own son saw the South Carolina police murder on television with my father because it didn’t occur to Grandpa to, you know, turn off the news. I would have advised my father to do something different when he was with his five-year-old grandson than to let him watch that, but that’s what happened. And we need to help our kids process what they’ve seen and try to avoid becoming desensitised. Like, they should be upset, they shouldn’t be saying, ‘oh, somebody got killed, no big deal’, right? It is a big deal.

I think that is treacherous, and it’s one of the reasons that kids probably shouldn’t have just tons of unsupervised internet access at a really young age, and they need to know that they can talk with us about what they are seeing. We don’t want to shut them down and make them fear telling adults. If they think they will lose all access to the media they love and they’ll never be able to watch another bottle-flipping video on YouTube because they saw something traumatic, they may not tell us the next time they see something traumatic.

My son asked me ‘why are police killing Black men?’ and I said ‘wow, that’s a big question, what did you see?’ And then we had a conversation, but it was mostly focused on me finding out from him what he saw and not giving my adult interpretation. I did give him some context for what he saw. And then later I watched the clip on my own so I could see what he had seen. I think parents need to get curious about what their kid thinks that they saw, what they understood, and then really focus on helping them, especially for young kids, just navigate [that].

Especially with something like pornography, kids may really not understand, you know, why were those naked people dancing? So have a conversation with them, but based on their experience. When kids are older, especially if they’ve sought out the content out of curiosity, that’s a different conversation. What we don’t want is our kids Googling the answers to life’s big questions [instead of talking to their parents], whether it’s sex, death or capital punishment.

Thank you Devorah. For more see Screenwise: Helping kids survive (and thrive) in their digital world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.