As the Executive Director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), I spend my days (and a lot of nights too!) thinking about the impact media and technology have on our world. NAMLE defines media literacy as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. In today’s digital world, media literacy education is essential. Over the last ten years, I have done countless talks with parent groups and students where I use the concept of digital citizenship to introduce the importance of media literacy. For many schools, digital citizenship tends to be a good entry point to broader conversations about media, technology and kids.
Through my work, I have spoken to many parents and students about the role of media in the world today. What I have noticed is the growing disconnect between parents and their kids about the role technology should play in their lives. Over and over again, I hear about the worries and concerns parents have about technology. “My son is addicted to his phone.” “I am afraid my daughter will not learn how to have a face to face conversation.” Over and over again, I hear from kids about what “hypocrites” their parents are. “My mom is on her phone during my entire soccer practice.” “My dad took me to dinner the other night and he was texting the whole time.”
In an effort to try to combat the growing disconnect between kids and their parents, I have come up with a series of tips for parents to help build conversation inside the home. I like to refer to them as “The 6 Es.” They are: exemplify, explain, engage, empathize, educate and empower.
Exemplify: Kids are watching what we do more than they are listening to what we say. It is important to be a role model for your kids with technology. If you don’t want your child to have a phone at the dinner table, then you need to put your phone away too. If you think an iPad in bed at night is not healthy for them, don’t pull out your iPad in bed either. Show them what it’s like to have a healthy relationship with technology.
Explain: It’s important for you to outline your expectations about technology in your home before you buy it. If your kids are young, set guidelines and rules before usage. Make sure they know what the rules are and what consequences there will be if rules are not followed. If your kids are older, make sure they know that you expect them to be kind and respectful online, just like you expect them to behave that way in person. I’ve noticed that many battles at home start because kids are not clear about what the rules and expectations are.
Engage: Make sure the conversations in your home are not only about what your kids should NOT be doing online. Talk to them about the media you use and enjoy. Discuss movies, TV programs, and YouTube videos. If you see something funny on social media, share it with them. Ask them why they like a particular video game. Let them show you how to use Instagram stories. Engage them about media and technology just like you would engage them around other interests.
Empathize: Kids are growing up in a public world and that can be really difficult. We made mistakes in private. Kids today don’t have that luxury, and the consequences are far greater. When we were growing up, we didn’t have to know if all our friends were hanging out without us. Now, kids can’t avoid knowing about what is going on with everyone at their school. This can be hard and we, as adults, can use our life experience to help them and guide them through these ups and downs. Most of the issues our kids are having with technology are not technology issues. They are social issues, and we do have some expertise to share when it comes to that.
Educate: It’s really important that we focus on preparing our kids for the world they are growing up in and stop trying so hard to protect them from all the bad things that may happen. Yes, your kids are going to say something you wish they hadn’t said online. Yes, your kids are going to see things you do not want them to see. Yes, they are growing up faster than you’d like them to. Be proactive, rather than reactive. For example, you can say, “I want you to know that at some point you are going to see something online that will likely upset you, maybe even scare you. If that happens, I want you to come to me. You won’t be in trouble. Sometimes I see things I wish I hadn’t seen! The important thing is that we talk about it.”
Empower: Many kids are deeply interested in technology and media. Encourage them to explore this interest. Remember, kids today will be in a workforce in the future that will expect them to understand technology, media creation, and social media. If you have a child who loves to take photos on Instagram, sign him up for a photography class. If you have a gamer in your home, sign her up for video game design camp. Embrace their interests and empower them to learn and grow.
In our daily lives, there are tons of opportunities to talk to our kids and learn about their interests. This is a time to open conversation. This is a time to exemplify, explain, engage, empathize, educate or empower. Try one. You might be surprised what happens.