Social Kids, Social Media: Enriching the Digital Lives of Children

What if I told you that as an educator and school leader, I believe you should get your children smartphones and grant them access to digital media and social networks, without supervision or limits, once they're in about fifth grade?

Well, if I did believe this, I'd be in good company. According to a new research report by Influence Central's Digital Trends entitled "Kids & Tech: The Evolution of Today's Digital Natives," the average age for children in the United States to acquire their first cellphone is 10 years, and nearly 40% of children get their own social network account at age 11. Only 41% of parents in this study reported setting limits on their children's Internet access.

In Silicon Valley, of course, none of these statistics probably surprise you. In fact, we might see both the cell phone ownership and social media account access occur at a younger age, and the parental limit setting somewhat lesser, in America's technology capital.

Nonetheless, many parents here do fret about allowing their children access to the shadowy digital underworld and its unpatrolled, habit-forming social networks. In The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman taught us that childhood used to be a series of revealed secrets, a gentle ramp to adulthood on which children were gradually introduced to the anxieties, conflicts, and burdens of grown-up life.

In many ways, our children's digital immersion steepens and shortens that ramp, affording kids immediate, uncensored access to images, ideas, and viewpoints in an unfettered assault on their senses, belief systems, and values at a critically formative time in their lives.

There are a lot of unanswered questions. Studies are beginning to demonstrate that early and excessive exposure to social media may be compounding teenage anxiety and self-esteem issues, and contributing to mental health conditions ranging from depression to heightened risk of suicide. Researchers are investigating whether screen time impairs or alters brain development. Educators and parents wonder what the impact will be for children who grow up communicating via a screen rather than face-to-face.

Beyond concerns about technology's dangers, parental misunderstanding can compound our apprehension about its prevalence in our children's lives.

Most parents view technology as an intrusion in daily life, a habit-forming distraction from family routine, an escape from reality. But to children, such distinctions are blurry or nonexistent. "We may think of our kids' online, mobile, and technological activities as 'digital life,' but to them, it's just life," according to Common Sense Media, a San Francisco based non-profit organization that provides education and advocacy to families to promote safe technology and media for children. Virtual experience is integrated into physical experience for our kids; the phone or tablet is merely a portal between the two environments, each a half of the same world for children today. So while parents may distinguish between a healthy, active and interactive world of play and friends, and a less healthy digital one, for children the worlds of things and of the Web are one.

Parents are in part responsible for the mass migration of children from the physical world to screens and social networks. Over the past three decades, our fear for our children's safety has risen to hysteric levels by the deluge of horror stories streaming from 24/7 newscasts, disproportionate to the actual decline in risks facing children outside the home.

Our heightened collective fear leads us to restrict our children from experiencing the joyful freedoms we enjoyed in our own childhoods. Because of our sometimes-irrational adult concern for our children's safety (documented in the 2010 book Free Range Kids), they aren't allowed to go out to play and socialize, at least not like we did. But they crave play and socializing, so they turn to technology.

Thus, we arrive in 2017. The digital lives of children are not regressing back in time anytime soon to the childhoods about which we reminisce.

Yet for many parents, our judgment persists. We often characterize the online life of children as passive, sedentary, shallow and rote, but there's more happening there than meets the eye. In social networks, for example, children create – they make music and videos, compose poetry and songs, mix media, and publicize and share their creations widely. They actively participate and communicate with one another, endlessly commenting and complimenting (and at times, admittedly, disparaging and demeaning) one another's stories and posts.

What's more, to thrive in modern society, young people need to be digitally literate. Granted, free rein to surf the Web, post to Snapchat, or spend the evening on Instagram while the math book sits unopened won't do much to advance a young person's digital literacy (or the likelihood of his thriving in society), but it is arguable that the economy of the future may well still require social networking skills.

Some studies also show that social networking builds empathy and thoughtfulness, and enhances existing friendships.

For certain, parents who take proactive steps – such as locating the family's digital devices in public, high-traffic areas of the house, developing parameters for Internet use, and monitoring where your children go online – will be able to avert most of the dangers lurking for children in the digital half of their lives.

Your choice of when your son gets his first smartphone, or when your daughter is allowed to have her own social network account, is a private decision; but perhaps you can lessen your anxiety if you're able to recognize and appreciate the two halves of your children's lives today.

By getting past your apprehensions about the digital half and then enriching the day-to-day experiences with time spent outdoors, with family, in socializing with friends, and through screen-free unstructured play, it is possible to provide children a whole life in the digital age.

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