Can We Talk?

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.

While I have not conducted official research, I have spoken to close to a thousand parents and students about the role media play 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.”

Besides this disconnect, there are a few consistent observations I have made over the years.

  1. Parents and students are desperate to talk about this topic, yet they are not talking about it honestly at home. I have never been able to get out of a workshop in less than two hours. Students are thrilled to finally be asked by an adult what their thoughts are about media and technology. However, parents and their kids don't seem to be having honest conversations about media and technology at home.

  2. Parents are completely overwhelmed. The list of concerns that parents have is endless. They are beyond worried. Some are terrified, and they come with so many questions. How much is too much? How can I stop fighting with my teen? How do I keep them safe? I’ve had parents start to tear up about the constant battle technology has become in their home!

  3. Students are savvy, aware, and thoughtful. Whether it is 5th graders or 9th graders, I am consistently impressed with students and their take on media and technology. They are asking questions. They are concerned about the risks. They are also desperate for adults to understand that it’s not all bad and that there is a ton of good that comes with technology.

  4. Students feel judged by adults. There is an incredible frustration from kids, especially teens, about the way their parents judge their media use. Students constantly point out the discrepancies between what their parents say and how their parents act. They hear their parents complaining about how much they are on their phones, while they watch their parents binge Netflix or spend time perusing Facebook and Pinterest.

  5. Students worry about the same things their parents do, but parents don’t engage enough in the positive part of technology with their kids.  Students are hardly oblivious to the dangers and risks of the online world. One 9th grader in a recent workshop said to me, “Personally, I’m worried about the darker side of the Internet where really malicious things happen. It’s really creepy.” Parents, however, focus mostly on the negative when it comes to their conversations with their kids. They are so concerned about the risks of technology that they ignore the opportunities.

In response to these observations and to try to combat the disconnect growing 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 you expect them to be kind and respectful online just like you expect them to be that way in person. I’ve noticed that so 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, YouTube videos. If you see something funny on Facebook, share it with them. Ask them why they like a particular video game. Tell them to 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. 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. 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 are not 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.

A parent in a recent workshop lamented about her 8th grader’s use of his phone for video games to and from school on the bus each day. This is how the conversation went:

Parent: It really bothers me that he plays video games on the bus to and from school.
Me: Why does it bother you?
Parent: He used to read on the bus but now he plays video games.
Me: Why does that bother you?
Parent: Because he used to read and at least he was learning something.
Me: Is there a possibility he’s learning something playing video games?
Parent: I don’t know but I think it’s a waste of time.
Me: Aaahhhh. You think it’s a waste of time. I bet he doesn’t think it’s a waste of time. Have you ever talked to him about why he likes to play video games and what video games he’s playing?
Parent: No.
Me: Well, I think you should start there.

This conversation is quite typical in my parent workshops. Parents have to deal with their children changing. Whether it be switching from books to video games, or hanging out with their friends instead of family on weekends, or not needing mom to tuck them in anymore - kids constantly evolve and that isn’t because of technology. In this scenario, we have an eighth grade boy who might be doing more reading for school or might be playing a video game with friends on another bus or simply might have altered his idea of downtime.  The point here is that his mom never even thought to ask about the change in behavior and have a conversation with her son.

In our daily lives, there are tons of opportunities to talk to our kids and learn about their new 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.


Michelle Ciulla Lipkin