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Digital Media and Our Children: It’s Complicated

As many of you know, The College School is a member school of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS), and through this organization we receive accreditation and participate in important professional development work. Each year ISACS hosts a large annual conference attended by more than 1000 teachers and administrators from roughly 200 schools. This week the conference is in Detroit, and I’m in attendance.

The program for the conference is robust and falls under the umbrella title of “Blazing a Trail to Learning.” The dozens of workshops touch on a wide variety of topics from school leadership, to social and emotional growth, to matters of social justice, to classroom strategies and innovation. My day today began in a session called “The Landscape of Teenage Digital Media Use: the Good, the Bad and the Confusing.” If you are a Newport or Big Bend parent and think this information doesn’t apply to you, keep reading! The session made clear that the challenges that might peak in the teenage years begin quite early for our children.

For years we have watched our children’s involvement in social media, digital viewership (YouTube, for example), and gaming expand and evolve. The “screen time” challenge tests many parents, and we all worry about the appropriateness and possible harm encountered by our children as they venture into the digital world. My gut reaction was deep concern when the presenter, Jill Walsh, informed us that young people between the ages of 13 and 18 engage with digital media an average of nine hours a day. Only a few of you have 13-year-olds; however, the average time engaged for children ages 8-12 is six hours a day–still quite a lot.

The session I attended today made it clear that the anxiousness and trepidation we share can be valid, but that, just with so much of what we face as parents, it’s more complicated than that. 

We understand, for the most part, the risks inherent in the digital world: children introduced to too much too soon; the pervasive presence of violent games; people behaving badly online; anonymity allowing even worse behavior. We know that staring at a screen for too long isn’t healthy. We are well aware that when we were younger, we had more face-to-face conversations, we walked to school–some of us even watched television without a remote control (and not because we couldn’t find it).

It’s hard to even fathom how much technology has changed in the last twenty years, and it isn’t surprising that these changes present new challenges for us as educators and parents. In this ISACS presentation, however, I walked away with an important understanding: our children want us to know that if we, when we were children, had the technology that they have now, we would have been doing the same things with it. 

In other words, children haven’t changed–their environment has. 

That understanding makes everything a little less scary. Our children find support online; they develop and strengthen friendships; they stay “in the loop” socially; and often they can even become more informed and intellectually agile. For some, their online presence actually helps them establish and define healthy social boundaries. In gaming, students can develop skills that make them more collaborative and strategic. For better or worse, the identity of our children includes, in large measure, their online identity. 

While our instincts might suggest we should try to change all that, our reality requires that we adapt. So understanding that “it’s complicated” is fine, but what are we to do?

Just as we do with other parts of our lives, we work to connect with our children, stay close to them, and listen to them. If the conversations about gaming, social media, and YouTube videos remain open and honest, our children are less likely to hide what they are doing. And while we may never truly understand the digital native, that’s fine: they might not understand our generations either. None of that prevents us from continuing to function as guides in a complicated world.

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