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There’s No App for That: Mentoring Your Child in the Digital Age

There’s No App for That: Mentoring Your Child in the Digital Age

Today’s post was written by Devorah Heitner, PhD, founder of Digital Natives, and guest on our recent Family Matters webinar: Beyond Screen Time: Raising Children in the Digital Age 

Parenting in the digital age can be overwhelming. It is easy to feel like your child (and their friends) are always one step ahead. How do you keep up with the latest apps?

Here’s the good news: It’s not about the apps. It’s about mentorship instead.

You don’t need to be an app expert to mentor your child.

What makes the app fun? What do your kids want to do with any given app? The app itself may be harmless, but harmless is a low bar for quality. With whom are they using the app? What kinds of experiences and interactions are they having? Is it developmentally appropriate? Is the app fun for you? The best kids apps are designed for some adult engagement and responsiveness.

It’s sensible for you to have a policy for young users. For instance, any new app needs to be parent-approved. The most important insurance against your child having a bad experience (or just getting bored with poorly designed apps) is for them to know they can come to you and that you have a process for evaluating apps. Just because something is free and labelled educational, doesn’t mean it is great. As they get older, they should be able to co-evaluate apps with you, and eventually they should be able to choose apps and games based on their own emerging criteria.

How can you evaluate the games and apps your kid wants to download?

Even if you’re not up on their latest app obsession, you can still help them make good decisions. Here are some criteria you can use:

For preschoolers and elementary schoolers:

  • Where does this app fall on the creation vs. consumption scale? Consumption can be great (reading great books, watching excellent movies, and TV), but many parents will want to see their child balance their consumption with some sort of creative activity. We need to think beyond screentime and consider how kids are actually using the technology. So apps where kids are drawing, designing characters, composing music, or designing their own level of a game might be more likely to get your green light.
  • Questions to ask: What is fun about this app? What is challenging? How will you be able to transition (from app/game to other activity) when it is time to be done?

For elementary and middle schoolers:

  • What kind of interaction does this application promote? If a game allows for social play, what level of interaction is your child ready for? How are her conflict resolution skills? Would she know what to do if a stranger asked personal questions? How concerned are you about bad language? If you have a young Minecraft fan, they may enjoy these  Clean Minecraft Videos curated by some awesome young people that I just met at an educational technology conference!
  • Questions to ask: Do you work together with other players in this game? Do other kids ever get in fights within the game? How do they resolve these conflicts?

For kids who want social media:

  • Social media is a big step for most kids. Can they show you that they are ready? For social apps like Snapchat, Instagram, and Vine, ask your child to show you a positive example of a peer using the app and making great choices. Also ask them to show you a negative example. This will give you a good sense of their judgement. Most social apps can’t be categorized as “good” or “bad.” It really depends how you use them! But for socially vulnerable kids and kids under the stated age guidelines (13 on many apps) there is good reason to be cautious.
  • Questions to ask: Who of your friends are on this app? Do their parents approve? Do your friends’ parents give them restrictions?

Apps for overwhelmed parents:

There are two types of apps that parents ask me about all the time. While I don’t think these are bad, my worry is that they promote a sense of false security. It’s a danger to rely on these exclusively:

  1. Tracking Apps. The instinct to keep your kids safe online is a strong one. If you use these apps though, don’t let them become an excuse to opt out of actively mentoring your child. These apps won’t help your child solve a conflict or stop stressing about how many likes he got for a post. Kids still need your mentorship.
  2. Filtering Apps. There is so much stuff on the Internet that we don’t want our kids to see. But filtering will only get you so far. “Nanny apps” might seem attractive, but they can’t protect your child from everything. Even if you filter the Internet at home, what happens outside the home?

Each family has a different set of values, but you are sure to run into something that you won’t allow in your house. Your home isn’t the only place your children will access the Internet. What about at school? On a playdate? Don’t delude yourself—it is an unfiltered world out there.

It’s always best to address this directly. There’s no substitute for active mentoring:

  • Don’t leave them alone to surf at very tender ages, and use the together time as teaching moments. Talk about what they can search for, and what they shouldn’t.
  • You may want to use a kids search engine like Kids Click, which is curated by librarians.
  • Show your kids how to detect an inappropriate site—before they click on a link. This is an important skill, and a way to instill your family’s values.
  • By middle school (or sooner), you may find that filtering gets in the way of things your child needs to do research for homework. If you choose to filter, make sure you use one where you, the parent, can selectively unblock sites as needed

So you don’t need to be an app expert to mentor your kid in the digital age. And whether or not you filter or use tracking, you can’t outsource mentoring and parenting. You won’t find an app in the App Store for that. Keep the conversation going about kids’ gaming experiences and other digital interactions so you know if they are thriving or if they need some additional support.

PS: My 12 Things Every Parent Should Know About Helping Children Thrive in the Digital Age ebook is available as an additional resource. In the book you’ll find ideas for unplugged time, as well as strategies for navigating transitions. If you have a kid who tantrums when it is time to stop playing Minecraft…this is for you!  Get the ebook here.

Digital ageAbout Devorah Heitner: An experienced speaker, workshop leader, and consultant, Dr. Heitner founded Raising Digital Natives to serve as a resource for schools and organizations wishing to cultivate a culture of responsible digital citizenship. She enjoys working with excellent public and independent schools across the United States. Her book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in the Digital Age is coming out in Fall 2016. Her curriculum Connecting Wisely: Social Emotional Insights and Skills for Plugged in Kids is used in schools across the United States. Dr. Heitner has a Ph.D. in Media/Technology and Society from Northwestern University and has taught at DePaul University and Northwestern University. She is delighted to be raising her own digital native, too.

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