Preparing Kids for the Digital World: Insights from Diana Graber

Diana Graber is the expert and author behind Raising Humans in a Digital World, and we sat down with her to hear her thoughts on teaching digital literacy to children.

By the time Diana Graber’s children were in middle school, she decided it was time to switch gears. After working as a television and film producer for many years, she went back to school to pursue a Master’s degree in Media Psychology and Social Change. It was during her studies that she became interested in digital media and its effect on children.

After a social media incident at her own kids’ school, she used what she’d learned to develop a digital literacy curriculum—which was the foundation for Cyber Civics, a digital citizenship literacy curriculum that’s now taught in 47 states and internationally. She also founded Cyberwise, a resource for grown-ups who want to help children navigate technology with confidence. Diana’s book Raising Humans in a Digital World is one of our favorite resources at Kinzoo, so we were excited to have the chance to chat about kids and technology!

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the tech landscape since you first started?

All the new social media networks—you cannot keep up! But while tools come and go, the basic values and core information that kids need are still the same. And, kids don’t really change. It takes the brain a certain amount of time to develop the capacity for abstract thinking—which is a prerequisite to ethical thinking. Kids are developing along the same timeline, but unfortunately, a lot of them are using tools at much younger ages when they are not prepared to use them safely or wisely.

In the past, media was one way. We just consumed it. And now, just about all media is participatory. We have a voice, and when we speak back, it stays online. It’s permanent. That’s a huge change that we have witnessed as adults. For kids, it’s just what media is.

What type of online environment is appropriate for kids?

A safe, protected environment—like training wheels to prepare kids for social media. Anything that parents can do together with their children is good to help model the way social media should be used: respectfully, safely and appropriately. I think that goes a long way in preparing kids to use it when they’re finally old enough.

I wish that social media networks would take more responsibility, but children were not part of their business plan. So, a lot of that is on us as parents and teachers to follow the guidelines they put out there. Almost every social media network requires kids to be at least 13 years of age. We have to bear a little responsibility for following those guidelines and preparing kids with the skills to use social media safely and productively.

I’m a huge advocate for education. All of this stuff is a lot for a parent to impart upon their child. And sometimes children aren’t as receptive to hearing this from a parent as they would be working this out in school with their peers. I hope that schools everywhere would make sure that kids are getting digital literacy lessons. Digital literacy is today’s literacy. Teaching kids how to understand the things that they see online is so important. It really belongs in school!

We’ve seen massive changes in the way that kids are using technology in the last year. How do you think the conversation around “screen time” will change?

I always try to look at the positive side of things. A lot of parents that were reticent or scared of screen time have been able to say, “Gosh, where would we be without it?” That’s because now, kids are getting their education and connecting with friends and loved ones via screens. In that respect, it’s been good because people are seeing that, when used well, screens are awesome.

But on the other hand, it is causing a lot of us to spend more time on screens than we would like. So as we transition out of the pandemic, it’s going to be a little bit of a trick to get kids back to appreciating real life and connecting with real people and doing things off-screen as well.

Sometimes screen time can be a source of anxiety. Why do you think that is?

Fear of the unknown! This is relatively new in the lifespan of a lot of adults, but this is how new tools have been received by cultures throughout history. When something new is introduced, it’s met with trepidation and fear—that’s just how we are as humans. And slowly, we learn to adapt to our new tools and we work them into our lifestyle. That’s where we are with digital tools. We’re still trying to figure out where they fit in and where that balance is. This is a normal part of the process.

Screen time itself isn’t the issue, it’s how you use it. It’s like saying a knife is bad. Well, a knife is bad if you hurt somebody, but it’s great if you use it to cut up your dinner. It’s the same thing with digital technology. It’s how you use it.

What tech advice would you give to parents with younger kids?

I’m so glad you asked that question because that’s near and dear to me! I devoted the first part of my book to that audience because your kids’ digital life starts the day they are born. Parents are taking pictures in the delivery room and posting them online, and all of a sudden, that infant has a digital reputation. We have to really think about that.

For the youngest of kids, equipping them with great social-emotional skills through hands-on experiences, face-to-face contact, reading together—that’s the foundation of digital literacy. When kids have those strong social and emotional skills, they’re going to be able to rely on those when they start interacting with others online. If they encounter cyberbullying, the kids that are equipped with great social and emotional skills are the ones that are going to withstand those pressures a lot better.

And for the little ones, they learn those skills best offline. They need that personal connection to develop those skills—and we have boatloads of research to support that! We’re also starting to see research that shows that screens can inhibit the ability of children to develop a lot of these capacities. So young children really need face-to-face, hands-on human connection.

You talk in your book about digital on-ramps for children. What are they and why are they useful?

This is the analogy: when you get on a freeway, you have an on-ramp so that you can join fast-moving traffic at a slow speed. You don’t just join at 80 miles an hour, you gradually work up to it. Introducing kids to digital tools is the same thing. Start them slowly and age-appropriately—and help them gear up to the fast-moving speed of things happening online.

Research tells us that video calling is a very positive experience for young children because they see faces—and usually, it’s a loved one. They see lips move, they see facial expressions, and that’s especially great at a time where so many people are masked up. That’s a great on-ramp for even the smallest of children. Put that child on your lap and video call with grandma, grandpa, friends, family—and teach them that this is a great way to use technology to connect with others.

What is the biggest misconception parents have about technology?

What we hear from a lot of parents, especially those who don’t check or join the social media accounts that their kids have, is that they automatically assume their kids are wasting time online. But they need to understand that, for kids and teenagers, their job is to disconnect from their family of origin and connect with their peers to figure out who they are—that’s what’s developmentally appropriate. And that work is happening largely online.

When you think your child is wasting their time connecting via Snapchat, they’re connecting and trying to figure out who they are, they’re trying on different personalities and getting feedback. It might seem like a waste of time, and perhaps sometimes it is—but again, that’s where a lot of kids connect, especially during a pandemic when they can’t be with their friends in person.

What online issues are kids most concerned about today?

It’s shifted because it used to be cyberbullying, but now it’s hate speech and racially insensitive speech that’s, unfortunately, increased during the past year. It’s bothersome to kids. I’ve had students tell me that they’ve reported racially insensitive stuff on TikTok and nothing has happened—and that bums them out. I think kids are becoming more socially aware of what’s appropriate to say and not to say—and for many, they’re bothered by the rhetoric that they’re seeing online. And sadly, some of that has trickled down from adults.

What are some of the positive ways that you’ve seen kids using technology?

Especially during the pandemic, a lot of kids are starting to learn to use different resources to write papers, do research or learn something new. We often think they’re wasting their time on YouTube, but so many kids use YouTube instead of Google and they’ll get a visual answer to whatever question is on their mind. So that’s really cool.

What advice do you have for kids when they’re going online? What should they be aware of?

The thing I say most is that everything you share online stays online forever. Think twice before you post anything online. Maybe even sleep on it. It’s hard because of how children are programmed to do things right in the moment. But it’s important to remember that behind every screen is a real person with real feelings. I think that can’t be said enough, either.

If you’re interested in learning more about Diana Graber and the awesome work she’s doing for kids and adults alike, check out her website here!

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