Teaching kids about their digital footprint: the who, the what, and the how.

What did you get for Christmas?  For my tweens and teens, the answer has been i-things, video game systems, cell phones, and cameras.  What do these items have in common? The internet.

All of these new devices either directly connect or need access to the internet in order to be fully functional.  For kids who are getting these devices for the first time, the interconnectivity and interactions available online are new and exciting.  It is a great opportunity to begin conversations (or continue) to instruct kids on the appropriate use of the internet.

The internet is creating a permanent, digital footprint as we surf, download, and watch.  Every time we log-on, check-out, upload, or download; we are leaving a digital footprint.  Always.

One of the blog’s readers posed a very insightful question regarding this digital footprint.

She asked,

“How do we teach our kids that anything they do publicly, including “silly” pictures they allow friends to take, etc. may be posted online for anyone (colleges, future employers) to see?”

This is a really important, and really challenging question. And, this is not a issue for just teens.  Even adults can be careless when it comes to e-communication.  Do you remember the “Cisco fatty” situation a few years ago?  For those of you who need a reminder, click here.

So let’s be clear.. we ALL need to be careful online. I’m not just picking on the kids here.

Issues regarding the internet, its advantages, its lessons, and its safe use is a HUGE topic.  I think the best way to address this issue is to break this question down into 3 parts:  The who, the what, and the how.

First, understand who you are dealing with.

In order to understand how to approach kids about this topic, we have to know who we are dealing with.  The big concern is that a tween’s interaction with the internet is going to last forever.  So, how does a 10-year-old perceive “forever?”

They don’t.  They can’t.

It is physically impossible for a tween/teen to fully understand the permanence of their actions (on- and off- line) regardless of the best of intent.  This is one of the fundamental frustrations of most parents of teens and pre-teens.  These kids just don’t get the long-term consequences of their actions.  That’s right - they don’t because they can’t!  Their brains don’t work that way!

There have been many areas of research examining adolescent brain development.  During adolescence, the behavioral and cognitive systems in the brain mature at different rates.

For tweens/teens, it seems that brain areas responsible for decision-making capabilities, and understanding long-term consequences, are directly related to pubertal growth. In addition, it is known that the executive functioning” area of the brain is the last part to mature.

The brain is maturing, not matured, during adolescence. There is substantial evidence that teens engage in dangerous activities despite knowing and understanding the risks involved.  Adolescents see the world as a function of social and emotional specifics, not a reflection of their intellectual ability.  For example, one theory argues that people 16-years and older share the same intellectual “smarts,” but there are huge age-related differences in social and emotional influence.  Younger kids have less developed “executive functioning,” setting them up to be more susceptible to peer influence and impulse control.  This leads to the age-related differences in actual decision-making (Steinberg, p. 71.)

So, you have a person with a maturing brain that is physically unable to understanding the long-term consequence of their interactions with a permanent medium.  What does that mean?   I think it means 2 things.

First, as a parent, we have a responsibility to protect and guide our kids through the internet.

Second, the brain is a muscle.  In order to get a muscle bigger and stronger, you have to challenge it by regular use and practice.  The same goes for the developing brain.  Areas of the brain need to be “worked” in order to develop correctly.  Not having internet interaction prevents related areas of the brain to mature.  Completely avoiding and limiting interactions on the web is not the best way to deal with this issue.

Which leads to the second area of discussion.

Second, understand what you are dealing with.

After being asked to comment on this topic, I asked my tweens/teens for the rest of the week this question, “How do you communicate with your friends?”

The answer was overwhelming.  Despite a few outliers, the vast majority of kids used Facebook (FB) and texting (SMS, MMS) to communicate.  E-mail seems to be phasing out.

What does that mean?  Parents need to know how to communicate via these mediums.  Teaching “netiquette”, e-communicaiton, and digital literacy is going to be huge. Have some time to engage yourself.  Knowing that the current mode of communication for most of my pre-teens/teens is SMS and FB, now is the time to get involved.

The need to engage online can be stressful as a parent, but I think you cannot be fearful to engage.  I consider myself fairly knowledgable about social media and e-communication.  My teen patients are still 10 steps ahead of me. I learn new things from them everyday.  The reality is, if you don’t dive in now, how many steps behind are you going to be when you finally choose to engage?

A few tips come to mind:

  • Do you have a FB page?  Use the technologies yourself, even if you are more a “lurker” than an active participant.  Know the security settings of these applications well.  Give yourself some time to explore the “help” sections regarding security specifics.
  • Do you text with your kids?  There is a whole different language out there!  There are lots of lists on SMS shorthand to decipher texts.  One list example, is here.
  • At home, know your computer and its parental controls.  (Never fool proof.)
  • Know the capabilities of your child’s cell phone including photo sharing and GPS tagging.  Turn concerning functions “off” in the phone’s settings.

Finally, understand how to deal with it.

Are you ready? (Take a deep breath...)

Your kids (read: my kids, our kids) will do DUMB STUFF!

Whew.  That’s it.  If we can all accept that statement of fact, we can all relax a bit.

In a great book called CyberSafe (Amazon affiliate link,) Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, pediatrician and blogger states,

“Instead of being blinded by the bells and whistles of technology and thinking of it as glorified toys, it’s better to discuss issues about technology with our kids as soon as they are able to use it.” (e-text)

Some more tips:

  • Start at home.  Have conversations with your kids about how they are communicating and what they have seen on the internet.  Get around the family meal table to set the foundation of what is acceptable behavior for your family.  Discuss how to treat people offline and how that relates to interactions with people online.  Model good online behavior yourself.
  • Kids need to have some autonomy (surfing the net, based on age/maturity) with supervision.  Here are some great sites (here and here) that talk about internet by age and stage.  Use these experts as guides for what is appropriate, and what you should be discussing, with the kids in your home.
  • Set limits. Set limits.  Set limits.
  • Teens want to be connected to parents, not their digital technology.  Don’t be fooled into thinking your presence is not desired.  Your interaction as a parent is desperately sought after by your teen, just often these screams of attention are silent.

Have fun, and good luck.