How to help kids navigate tracking apps, social media, sexting and more

How to help kids navigate tracking apps, social media, sexting and more

By Heidi Stevens, Tribune News Service

Devorah Heitner’s fantastic new book, “Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World,” begins with a clear-eyed message for those of us raising or shaping young people in this moment.

Kids feel watched but not seen.

Heitner, a screen media expert and educator, has spoken with hundreds of children, parents, educators and researchers on the topics of privacy, social media, tracking apps, sexting—you name it. “Growing Up in Public” is a distillation of the takeaways she wants us to bear in mind when we’re setting the tone and tenor and expectations in our own homes.

“Kids feel constantly surveilled,” Heitner told me. “Like their parents are out to catch them. Their school is out to catch them. Their peers are out to potentially catch them and throw them under the bus. They feel very surveilled but not necessarily seen or understood in the wholeness of who they are.”

Heidi Stevens 

We can track their GPAs, but that doesn’t help us understand what subjects they love or loathe or feel lost in. We can see their location, but that doesn’t tell us how they felt at that party, that dinner, that practice. We can see what they’re doing, but not why or with whom or how any of it feels.

“Too much data can be anxiety-provoking for parents,” she said. “And it’s also weirdly not any data.”

Readers will bring their own lenses and values and knowledge of their children’s unique personalities, challenges and habits to Heitner’s work. The book honors that and doesn’t feel overly prescriptive. But it does invite us to interrogate the messages we’re overtly or subtly sending our kids—and whether those messages are serving our larger goal of raising happy, healthy, resilient kids.

A few highlights:

Small privacy vs. big privacy

Kids know their privacy has been violated if their parents read their texts or post about their private moments on Facebook. But “big privacy” often escapes their concern.

“Are they aware that YouTube’s algorithm is tracking search terms, clicks and time watched?” Heitner writes. “And that it’s using information to fill a preferences profile to generate a set of tailored suggestions for the next video? And that it’s designed to keep people on the platform at all costs so that YouTube can keep serving ads to them?”

Both types of privacy merit frequent, layered conversations with our kids, she maintains.

“We need to talk to kids about algorithms and the way they can be fed toxic diet content if they click on fitness content, how interacting with edgy humor can lead to them being fed something misogynistic or racist,” she said. “We want to be mindful of what we’re telling algorithms we want.”

Stop using college as a Boogeyman

Colleges aren’t stalking your kids online. Sure, there’s the occasional exception for the occasional student. But telling your kid that posting a photo in a midriff-baring shirt hurts her chances of getting into Princeton is a dodge.

Deal honestly with your child, Heitner says, with a focus on helping them make choices with integrity.

“A college is unlikely to do a deep dive to figure out what’s on your Snapchat,” she said. “But someone in your friend group is, and that’s going to reflect on who you are and how you treat people and what your reputation is right now.”

The threat of getting caught by an authority shouldn’t be the focus. The opportunity to conduct yourself in a way that serves you well should be.

“We really want to emphasize do no harm,” Heitner said. “Not because your principal might find out. Because we don’t want what we post or say or do to cause harm—to ourselves or to anyone else.”

The sexting conversation is actually a consent conversation

Heitner devotes a chapter to sexting, and it’s an eye-opening and important one—why kids do it, how many kids are likely doing it, why our discomfort around it isn’t particularly useful.

“Instead of simply fearing sexting,” Heitner writes, “we must actively teach and mentor or kids on consent, flirting, relationships and negotiating boundaries. By emphasizing the importance of tuning into their own feelings, we are mentoring them to make safer and more ethical choices that honor themselves and others.”

Don’t lead the sexting conversation with legal threats. (“They all know kids who’ve sent a nude and didn’t get arrested,” Heitner said.) Do lead with the importance of enthusiastic consent and why we never harass, cajole or beg our way into someone’s heart or body—and why that’s never the way into ours.

In short, in each of the topics Heitner tackles: Our job is to help our kids develop a finely tuned conscience, and get used to turning to it for guidance—IRL and online.

“We need to build in more respect for kids’ privacy, help them focus on grappling with their identities away from the public eye, and allow them to be comfortable with complexity in their reputations,” she writes. “After all, they are not brands, they are our children, and they are human beings.”

Heidi Stevens is a Tribune News Service columnist. You can reach her at heidikstevens@gmail.com, find her on Twitter @heidistevens13 or join her Heidi Stevens’ Balancing Act Facebook group.

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