Remote School as the Gateway Drug to Social Media

For parents who did not expect their children to have devices or use social media so young, virtual learning was an unexpected push into the digital deep end.

Several weeks into the new school year, I was sitting in my home office when I heard a series of beeps emanating from my phone.

Like many parents with children engaged in distance learning, I had set it up to let me know when their teachers posted a new assignment or made a change to the day’s schedule. But the sheer volume of notifications that afternoon seemed unusual and I soon saw why — my 9-year-old was in multiple, unsanctioned Google Hangout groups chatting with her friends. Within minutes, my phone had garnered 80 additional notifications — all with messages along the lines of an unending stream of “hi’s” or a parade of unicorn emojis.

Another disturbing discovery: My 7-year old was happily watching random YouTube clips, automatically generated suggestions that followed the short, educational videos assigned by his teacher.

This precipitous push into the social media deep end for my kids may seem relatively minor against the sweep of the pandemic. But for parents who did not expect to allow their children to have devices or use social media for many years, it is troubling.

Among the many changes in young children’s lives this year, the sudden access to the seduction of digital content and the opportunity for online communication with their peers compete for their attention. And with infection rates rising across the country, families may have to contend with distance learning, and all that comes with it, for the foreseeable future.

So what now? Do we consign our children to the social media flames and hope for the best? Or clamp down even tighter whenever they’re not on devices for schoolwork? Now that Pandora’s box has been opened, it’ll be difficult to dial back access once in-person school resumes.

Jordan Shapiro, a professor at Temple University and the author of “The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World,” proposes a different tack. Long before the pandemic touched our shores, he’d advocated introducing digital and social media — which have become integral to modern society — to children earlier than traditionally advised (many social media platforms set 13 as the age when kids can open accounts).

“If you want to teach people how to deal with problematic interactions within a space that is part of our lives, then you don’t do it by ignoring it,” he noted. It’s also the reason Dr. Shapiro has never liked applying the language of addiction around screen use. “I actually want my kids to tell me what they’re doing on a screen,” he explained, “whereas I know that they’re not going to come home and tell me that they’ve tried smoking today — ever.”

Instead, Dr. Shapiro suggested, parents can incorporate digital play as part of family time, and “interact with your kids, get involved with your kids — especially when they’re little.” At this critical time (typically before the age of 12), kids yearn for conversations with their parents — whether it’s about the latest YouTube video they’ve seen or a new video game they’ve played — and parents should seize the opportunity to interject themselves into the development of their child’s inner dialogue.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also endorses the idea that parents should serve as media mentors to their children.

Part of the exploration parents can engage in with their children could also include interactions on a family social media account where parents “talk about how to share photos with relatives and ‘what is the appropriate way we comment on Uncle Joey’s posts,’” Dr. Shapiro said. This modeling of appropriate behaviors happens all the time in the physical spaces kids occupy and is just as crucial to model in their digital spaces.

Although parents who see kids typing silly messages to each other — lines of emojis without words, a string of ha’s that take up half a screen — may think they’re meaningless, “for a lot of kids, this is their only way of communicating right now and we don’t want to cut them off,” said Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a child psychologist practicing in New Jersey and co-author of a free e-book, “Growing Friendships During the Coronavirus Pandemic.”

It’s important, however, to manage their expectations around responsiveness. “There could be a lot of reasons someone doesn’t respond in an online communication,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore said. Parents can help children learn to wait for responses from their friends by walking through possible scenarios together (they’re in class right now, their parents pulled them away).

When conflicts do arise, parents should conduct “a post mortem on interactions that went wrong,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, an expert on children and media at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. An example of this type of debriefing occurred recently with Dr. Radesky’s fifth grader, who had an argument over a chat because someone removed someone else from the group chat and another person renamed it. “It was just this little stupid drama, but we needed to unpack it and approach it with a problem-solving mind-set,” she said.

Dr. Radesky said her children’s principal suggested that her son write down all the digital avenues he wants to explore on sticky notes as the ideas come to him, and set aside time in his schedule to indulge them. The notes are effective, she said, “because it’s a visual cue to the child, like, ‘OK, here’s my list of things I’ll get to later, but right now I’m just going to stay engaged.’”

Dr. Radesky also sees this time as an opportunity for both children and adults to gain a greater “awareness of our emotional relationship with technology, how it focuses us or scatters us.” Questions you can pose to your child could include: “What is that fun little rise that you get when you got an email? What does that feel like? What were you hoping for?” Although conversations around reactions to technology may still be largely incomprehensible to younger children, she said they’re worth starting, even with kids as young as 5.

Another way to raise conscious media users is to encourage kids to create with digital tools, Dr. Radesky said. This “look behind the curtain at how tech is made, what goes into it, how the perspective of the creator comes out in terms of what shows up on the screen” — jump-starts the development of a child’s critical lens through which they view other media they’ll consume. Dr. Radesky noted how much fun it was to observe her two sons making a short film recently using iMovie and see why they chose different elements to incorporate in their design. An added bonus: Research on educational technology has demonstrated that good social collaboration often occurs when kids are creating together through media.

Digital literacy, however, isn’t effective in combating susceptibility to advertisements, cautioned Dr. Thomas Robinson, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University. And “children under 7 or 8 don’t have the cognitive capacity to differentiate between advertising and content,” said Dr. Robinson, a founder of the Human Screenome Project, on the impact and promise of digital media.

Dr. Robinson drew a parallel with financial literacy, which also is unlikely to develop on its own without putting behavioral interventions in place. “What works is when they put in default options,” he said, such as having your 401(k) contribution automatically deducted from your paychecks. In a similar way, children (with their parents’ assistance) can be taught to block or limit time spent on problematic websites, games and apps when they’re in a cool state and more resistant to temptation. When reading news, train kids to run through a checklist such as look up the source, figure out if it’s also being reported by reputable news sources and think about who it came from.

Dr. Radesky stressed that “what’s really hard about this moment, is that all of these tools that weren’t designed optimally for young learners and young brains are being rapidly implemented at a time when parents have the least amount of mental space to help their children navigate it.” Ultimately, her advice to parents is to “do what you can to stay sane and to feel like you’re maintaining some connection with your kids.” That’s what’ll help us all through this.

Connie Chang is a writer and mother of three in Silicon Valley.

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