Raising a Screen-Smart Kid: Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age

Raising a Screen-Smart Kid: Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age

by Julianna Miner

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Overview

For parents who didn't grow up with smartphones but can't let go of them now, expert advice on raising kids in our constantly connected world

Most kids get their first smartphone at the same time that they're experiencing major developmental changes. Making mistakes has always been a part of growing up, but how do parents help their kids navigate childhood and adolescence at a time when social media has the potential to magnify the consequences of those mistakes? Rather than spend all their time worrying about the worst-case scenario, readers get a bigger-picture understanding of their kids' digital landscape. Drawing on research and interviews with educators, psychologists, and kids themselves, Raising a Screen-Smart Kid offers practical advice on how parents can help their kids avoid the pitfalls and reap the benefits of the digital age by:

* using social media to enhance connection with friends and family, instead of following strangers and celebrities, which is a predictor of loneliness and depression
* finding online support and community for conditions such as depression and eating disorders, while avoiding potential triggers such as #Thinspiration Pinterest boards
* learning and developing life skills through technology--for example, by problem-solving in online games--while avoiding inappropriate content

Written by a public health expert and the creator of the popular blog Rants from Mommyland, this book shows parents how to help their kids navigate friendships, bullying, dating, self-esteem, and more online.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143132073
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/23/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 144,441
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Julianna Miner is an adjunct professor of global and community health at George Mason University. With twenty years' experience in the field of public health, she has served as the director of social marketing for the Alabama Department of Public Health and the strategic planning director of the Fairfax County Health Department. Miner is also the creator of the popular parenting blog Rants from Mommyland, Parents magazine's funniest blog of 2013, and was named one of Babble's 10 Best Humor Bloggers. Her articles on parenting, public health, and technology have been featured in The Washington Post. She lives with her husband, three kids, and two ridiculous dogs in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

Read an Excerpt

My Story (age thirteen, 1986)

I vividly remember being thirteen years old and the new girl in eighth grade. It was 1986 in Princeton, New Jersey. I was an only child and I had just transferred back to public school after several years as a student in a fancy private school. My mother had remarried the year before, and the additional income my new stepfather brought to the table put us somewhere between losing my need-based scholarship and being able to afford the full tuition. I spent most of my time alone. I didn't really belong with my more affluent peers but seemed to have little in common with the kids in my neighborhood, many of whom I didn't even know.

That meant a fresh start for eighth grade in a public school near my dad and stepmother's house. While that prospect was scary, I was ready for it. Switching schools was going to open doors and allow me to reinvent myself. I was awkward and wore the wrong clothes. I was (or had been) the scholarship kid, and everyone knew it. And if that wasn't enough, I was a blurter.

I may have been an ADHD kid, but back then teachers just told my mother that I was a daydreamer who couldn't seem to work to her potential. I was easily distracted and would allow myself to wander into dreamy wormholes during class or at the lunch table, achieving Walter Mitty-like trances, where I would become almost completely unaware of my surroundings. And then I would blurt out something that reflected the reality in my head.

I think we can all agree that is not a prescription for being cool in middle school.

I did not let my social awkwardness stop me, however. I had a picture of who I wanted to be at my new school, someone cool. Someone-dare I say it?-popular. Most of this mental picture was formed by the seventies-era sitcoms I watched over and over again after school. I could be cool, right? It was possible.

Well, no, the actual cool kids let me know that wasn't going to happen after about a week. The good news was, I met a friend who helped break that fall. She was the other new girl, and she was nice enough to overlook the fact that I was kind of a mess. Things were awkward for me at home, with a new stepfather at one house and my stepmother newly pregnant at the other. Things were equally awkward at school because I had no idea how to get out of my own head and just be a person. Eventually I made a couple of nice friends, and it seemed as if I might survive the year and make it to high school.

Now back in 1986 in my hometown, by the time you made it to middle school (fifth grade), you were basically feral by current parenting standards. We rode around town on our bikes, buying slices of pizza with change we scrounged up. We loitered in the town square. We went to the shopping center and walked around for hours. No adults really knew where we were or what we were doing. Many, many things happened that parents seemed to know nothing about.

By midyear, there was a contagious outbreak of falling in love. First one person would select another and let it be known that they liked them. The other person would often reciprocate the liking publicly, which was the start of being known as boyfriend and girlfriend. Within a couple of days, there was generally French-kissing, followed by proclamations of love. This all seemed to be the norm, at least from my perspective.

When it was my turn to participate in this ritual, I was a little shocked by how horrible it felt. I don't recall even liking the boy very much; I just remember being grateful that someone wanted to date me. After a couple of weeks, though, I couldn't take it. I wrote my friend a note about how I didn't like him anymore and wished I could be done with it. I went on to describe how I would very much prefer to be dating a cooler, older, more popular boy, but sadly, he had a much-cooler-than-me girlfriend. I may have said something unkind about her, even though I recall her being a very nice person.

My friend read the note in class, folded it up, and accidentally dropped it on the floor. It was picked up by another girl (whom I became friends with several years later), who saw her chance to do something dramatic and took it. She made lots of photocopies of that note, but first asked me to pay her ten dollars to delay passing them out around school. I suspected everyone already knew the contents of what I had written (they did) and also knew I couldn't get my hands on ten dollars even if I sold my right kidney on the black market.

The next few weeks were a whirlwind of humiliation, near constant stomachaches, and cruel notes from classmates (some signed, some anonymous) telling me what an asshole I was and how much they wished I had never come to their school. I remember some of the notes told me I was a bitch and a slut. Some of them told me to go back to my old school-and then made fun of my family for being too poor to send me there. My clothes were mocked. My face and body were mocked. One person drew a very creative cartoon that depicted my death.

My friend who dropped the note felt bad and did an admirable job of both standing by me and distancing herself from the nonsense. The boy I wanted to break up with was deeply embarrassed by the whole thing and never spoke to me again, which I deserved. I lived in fear that his older sister would kick my ass, but she displayed remarkable restraint and just glared at me whenever I crossed her path.

I went to school each day with my head down, feeling sick with anticipation at what people would say to me or what they were thinking as they stared at me. I went home each night knowing everyone hated me but never, ever disclosing a single thing to my parents. I watched too much TV, took a lot of naps, ate a lot of string cheese, and read ridiculous books that were easy to get lost in. I would try to recharge at home, hoping no one would ride their bike past my house or prank-call me. The calls would be a tip-off to my parents that something was going on.

I was miserable, and I was not myself. I knew I had brought this on myself as a result of my poor judgment and unkind words, and that knowledge increased my shame and self-loathing. I escaped into my head, imagining alternate endings to the story where I was cool and had friends, where things worked out okay.

After a couple of very long weeks, it passed. By the time the eighth grade dance came around in June, there was plenty of other drama to supplant my pathetic note-writing. I got a dress and a date and felt immensely relieved to be out of the spotlight. While everyone remembered what had happened, no one seemed to care anymore. It had never felt so good to have nobody care about me.

I had survived eighth grade.


And Now that Awkward Eighth Grader Is a Mother

The great irony of being a parent is that you get to relive the best and worst moments of growing up through your kids. I recall so clearly how hard it was to be in middle school and high school, and now my kids are the same age. One of my personal challenges as a parent is to consciously stop projecting all my own bad decisions, experiences, and baggage onto my kids. They are not me. They will make all their own choices and all their own mistakes.

And of course they live in a totally different world. Kids don't write notes anymore-they text each other and send Snaps. As parents, we keep an eye on their Instagram feeds, lurking to see who is liking what and who is liking whom. We're careful about what they watch, eat, and listen to. We track our kids' locations now, and always know where they are. We organize their social time and drive them to practice. Things are so different from when I grew up in the eighties that I started to question my own parenting choices and looked to books and the Internet for guidance. What I found was that no matter what choice you make about raising your kids, someone is going to have an opinion about it.


Mommy Blogging and Parenting Norms

My reaction to the unspoken rules and hard truths of modern parenting was to write about them. I'm one of the horrible mommy bloggers you've heard about. You would think I'd learned in eighth grade not to write down things that I might later regret, but apparently not. I've been writing about raising kids since 2009.

I've tried to be mindful of my children's privacy along the way. I wrote about my kids through their baby, toddler, and preschool years, feeling comfortable that the universal joys and frustrations of early childhood were things that could be shared without hurting them later. As they got older, I began to struggle with the impact of writing about them at all. This mirrored their growing independence from me.

Though it pained me to see them becoming big kids, and now tweens and teens, I knew it was the natural order of things-that I had to slowly start letting go of the small people who had once literally been a part of me. I began to focus more on my experiences dealing with the current culture of parenting. Sometimes the feedback was good, and sometimes I couldn't bear to read the comments.

At about the same time, I began working as an adjunct professor at a university nearby, teaching undergrads an overview course on public health. That job was a game changer for me. It made me think in new ways, allowing concepts and ideas to click. I had to make complex information relatable, challenge my students when they didn't want to be pushed, and support them in the classroom when things were going wrong.

In short, it was a lot like parenting. Being a mother forces me to be a much better person than I'm naturally inclined to be. Being a teacher forces me to be a better thinker and to put myself in the shoes of the young adults I'm working with. It has given me an appreciation for the intelligence, mental toughness, and work ethic required to make it in today's brave new world.


Expert, Cautionary Tale, or Both?

Taking all this into account, I should have been uniquely qualified to help my kids negotiate social media and the online world. But the truth is, I was terrified about how to effectively parent them in the age of the Internet. I live so much of my professional and social life through my laptop and my phone. When my kids were old enough to want to be Internet people themselves, I struggled with how to make that work without being a hypocrite.

The fear that was driving me wasn't even really based in reality. Half of it had to do with the all-too-vivid memories of my own adolescence-filled with poor choices, ridiculous shenanigans, and (thank you, baby Jesus) no cell phones. The other half had to do with the worst-case scenarios that I feared could befall my kids online, fueled by tragic news stories that seem to be everywhere, intent on giving me stomachaches.

So what happens when a mommy blogger's kids are finally old enough to get iPhones and Instagram accounts and do their own thing online? This is the situation in which I found myself.

I took a deep breath and decided to start from the most logical place-the beginning. My experiences as both a professional Internet person and an adjunct professor of public health gave me the tools I needed to start understanding how social media influences our behavioral decision-making. I wanted to figure out what the risk factors were that led to the scary outcomes that permeate our consciousness as parents. More important, I wanted to learn about the protective factors that help position young people to become responsible digital citizens. I also wanted to get a better sense of how teenagers work so I could wrap my head around how and why they make the choices they do.


Risk Factors and Protective Factors

Risk factors are those things that predispose us toward harm or a bad health outcome (for example, smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer). Protective factors can both decrease the potential harmful effect of a risk factor and contribute to a positive outcome (for example, being physically active can both reduce the risk of developing heart disease and help maintain a healthy weight). These interact in many ways, on an individual or family basis, or among peer groups and within communities.


We're All Figuring This Out As We Go Along

Parents right now are in the unenviable position of raising the first generation of true digital natives and being the standard-bearers for all the families who come after us. So no pressure or anything. We can't look back to our youth for comparison or ask our parents and grandparents how they dealt with gaming addiction or online bullying. There is no precedent to draw from.

We're the last generation of truly pre-Internet parents. We can't fully understand or relate to what it means to grow up with the kind of connectedness our kids take for granted. Our kids can't really conceive of what it was like for us in the days before wireless technology made constant contact the norm. When the next generation of parents begins handing out iPhones to their teenagers, they will have had the benefit of growing up online themselves.

I've come to realize that the people I'm raising are growing up and into a newly made digital society, one that I'm obligated to teach them how to live in. The world I knew as a kid is gone. One of the things that public health has taught me is that you have to solve problems in the world as it is, not as you'd like it to be. That means accepting that things are messy and complicated, filled with unknown factors that seem to be working in ways you can't always understand. This is the world we've got, no matter how we may feel about it. The choices we make (and that our kids will make) in this environment are influenced by technology, culture, social determinants, biology, politics, that pesky free will that we humans always want to exert, and a million other things we can't predict. We may not love that this tech has permeated our lives, and the lives of our kids, to the degree that it has. But it's not going anywhere, so we need to figure out how to make it work the best we can.

Table of Contents

1 The Last Analog Dinosaurs Raising the First True Digital Generation 1

2 Social Media and the Imaginary Audience 26

3 Well-Being, Self-Esteem, and Social Comparison in the Selfie Generation 49

4 Teen Friendships in the Age of the Internet 72

5 Digital Dating and Teen Relationships Online 97

6 The Social Culture of Video Games 123

7 Digital Addiction and Risky Behavior Online 147

8 Growing Up Online with Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, or Autism 170

9 Safety, Predators, Harassment, and Bullying Online 193

10 Hoping for the Best and Avoiding the Worst 218

Appendix 1 Cell Phone Contract or Agreement 245

Appendix 2 Sexuality and Sex Ed Online Resources for Teens 251

Acknowledgments 253

Notes 255

Index 265

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