Sunday, June 18, 2017

Essential Reading for Parents for Teachers - “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World” by Devorah Heitner Book Review


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Link to Screenwise (2016) and Dr. Heitner’s website Raising Digital Natives, Twitter, and TED. (or find the book on Amazon) Screenwise is essential reading for educators and parents alike - and now that summer break is coming, get reading!

Although it could appear to be a book of strategies for parents to help children deal with the technology “bombardment” at home, as I read I found that I was taking copious notes on the suggested strategies so that I can help the parents of my students, as well as more deliberately guide students to better decision-making as they develop their digital identities. I took 30 pages of notes, but the following is just scratching the surface of those notes, let alone the book itself. I am also very impressed with how Dr. Heitner frequently makes reference to further reading and research, a very important part of the “sharing economy”.

Upon writing this post I’ve noticed that I have pulled from various parts of the book at random. This post is also meant to “tease” the reader - the strategies bulleted here are only samples from the book. (I do intend to do further research and create my own parent-friendly resources, crediting the sources used) For now, if you like what you see in this post, pick up a copy of Screenwise and enjoy!

The Aims of the Book
Dr. Heitner notes three aims in her research and writing:

  1. To support parents in becoming digital mentors to their children.
  2. Find balance in the digital world.
  3. Acknowledge the benefits of technology.

With regard to mentoring, she recognizes that it’s about guiding kids through their mistakes and to empathize with their lives, pointing out that kids feel pressure to keep up with their peers or might feel left out. (FOMO - fear of missing out, making ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ important to their feeling of social standing) It’s also about modelling proper behaviour for children. I would suggest that this applies to educators' behaviour in schools as well. Her research points out that many kids feel there are rules for adults and rules for children. I think that this is probably okay, but adults do have to be careful about hypocritical behaviour. Kids are watching us.

Social Emotional Growth in the Digital World
Heitner notes that devices don’t cause social-emotional turbulence, but can heighten it. As with any time in history, some personalities are “wired for drama”, thus we have to help kids identify when it’s time to plug into different online communities when there is negativity in one. More important than privacy is safety. Bullying has always existed, but these online communities now give bullies a new outlet. Kids need to learn guidelines for when they are bullied, blackmailed or see bullying happen. In addition to this is having a frank discussion with kids about what is online, and what content is made for adults, giving strategies to deal with adult content that kids may come across, as well as how to protect themselves from talking to online strangers.

Kids and Online Content
We can’t always control what online content kids view, but we can influence how they engage with it. Filters don’t actually control children much. They have to learn the difference between .com / .org / .edu / .gov, etc, as well as copyright and information laws, the public sphere vs the private, and how text and images influence content consumers. Young people quickly learn how to get over firewalls, and thus need to learn to assess the content in front of them. Some things about youth and life online that they don’t do well:

  • Deal with peer conflict
  • Handle group dynamics
  • Use privacy settings effectively
  • Understand their digital footprint
  • Understand the functions/power of the apps they use
  • Understand how to demonstrate academic honesty properly

Assessing One’s Own Digital Literacy
An important strategy note in the book for adults is to assess your own digital literacy. How much do you know about the apps your children are using? Developing the ability to mentor your own kids may require finding your own mentor. (a good idea!) Teachers can seek instructional coaches or other teachers; parents can seek help at their children’s school. According to Heitner, studies show that mentorship is more effective at developing positive behaviour that limiting access to apps and devices. Check the idea of “limiters”, “mentors” and “enablers”. (Chapter 3) Families have to stand firm and make choices for what works with their family, not what other families are doing. It can be difficult for parents to talk to other parents about their children’s technology uses. Not sure how to create a “rules for home”? You can:

  • Talk to a teacher or administrator for advice
  • Do careful research on strategies for a home “technology” playbook
  • Teach your children to be confident in saying “we don’t do that at our home”
  • Host gatherings at your home for children so you can supervise, model and perhaps mentor

Working With Your Children
How can you work with your children? (here is a short list of strategies you can use with your child)

  • Ask about the apps they use at school and one their own
  • Explore apps with your child
  • Create a do/don’t list
  • Create a behaviour criteria for connecting with friends online
  • Consider potential drama that could happen with friends online and how to respond to it
  • Learn to avoid geotagging (for safety)
  • Talk about what makes a good friend
  • Games & Apps:
    • Seek out playgrounds, not playpens (Scratch, Minecraft, Code Academy...)
    • Play the games together; have your child teach you to play
    • Try to find apps that encourage creativity, connectivity with friends, and collaboration
    • Seek empathy building games
    • Avoid games that sexualize female characters
    • Determine structured playing time (or even supervised playing time, depending on the age of the child)
    • Talk about purchasing apps, how credit works, how in-app purchasing works, and online purchasing in general (such as buying on Amazon) - empower them to understand the economics of apps
  • Discuss and seek out positive examples of online profiles
  • Discuss the consequences of online mistakes

Get your child to articulate why websites, online spaces, and apps are useful. Some questions to consider:

  • What areas a the biggest time wasters?
  • How does texting (and posting) sometimes lead to conflict?
  • In what situations should a child tell their parents about a negative online interaction?

It’s important to keep in mind that children and teenagers use apps not only for gaming but also to connect with friends. (kind of like hanging out at the mall years ago; kids now hang out in online spaces)

Becoming a “Tech-Positive” Parent
Keep in mind that kids are watching adult behaviour. What habits are they observing? Think about or create family rules together. (such as unplugged meals, screen time, routines and schedules, protocol for posting family images, curating family photos) Consider the habits that will be needed when getting new or first devices. (including gaming devices and cell phones) What will the process be that allows for some monitoring to independence? How will the child be affected by having the device? (will the child be “in or out” of the loop; will they overshare; will they look at inappropriate content; what are the social “status” implications; safety and privacy)

Dr. Heitner suggests the following characteristics of parents who see the value in technology and are proactive with regard to the home “tech” environment. Assume that children are doing the right thing. Understand that not all screen time is a waste - there is plenty of learning on YouTube, television, and creativity apps. The parents:

  • Establish a safe environment at home with plugged in and unplugged time
  • Don’t block, talk
  • Think about their own device and time usage, and model this for the family
  • Requests permission before posting images of their children online
  • Use positive language with your children, praising rather than giving warnings
  • Encourage family collaboration (ie) shared calendars, shared apps / accounts, and perhaps even work on a YouTube channel together
  • Avoid spying apps - build trust instead
  • Follow bloggers that can keep you up to date on new online apps and games (the book suggests GeekDad)

*See a checklist on page 80 of Screenwise.

Empathizing with Your Child
Dr. Heitner suggests empathy being a critical approach to helping your children. Think about their weekly schedule. Do they have too much “going on” to even eat? (which leads to fatigue and poor decision-making) Find well-timed, authentic opportunities to model good behaviour, such as sharing your text messages, or asking if it’s okay to post their image (which indirectly says “this image belongs to you, not your parents” - they’re empowered). This modeling teaches self control. Mentor the proper use of phone conversations and emailing. Understand that children may not want to hang on to old photos - their last few months may have been socially a bit rough.

As a parent, should you choose to monitor texts and posts be sure to have a response to negative content (such as gossip, foul language, negative talk about teachers and other adults). If you choose to monitor, have a plan to move towards the child’s independence. Have the child work with you to create the ‘rules of engagement’.

Dating & Online Relationships
Many young people are already aware that their personality online is different from face-to-face encounters. Dating and friendship haven’t changed but the nature of relationships have a new dimension due to social media and the internet. Work with children to create a “healthy digital and face-to-face” friendship checklist. Does your child:

  • Know the difference between online and offline friends?
  • Know how to be clear about their values and ethical or social boundaries?
  • Understand that popularity isn’t reflected in ‘likes”, “followers” and “retweets”?
  • Identify when a person is being excluded digitally?
  • Identify bullying and meanness online?
  • Act respectfully, thoughtfully and safely towards others and self in all relationships?
  • Know to not take a face-to-face conflict online?
  • Know when it’s a good idea to “unfollow” someone?
  • Identify online cruelty?
  • Identify the difference between online drama and online cruelty?

An important consideration is that children don’t always want to be online. They can get tired of “keeping up” socially. Kids congregate online in social media and gaming communities. Young people need to learn the difference between real friends, online friendships, and followers. Research shows that they do feel snubbed if they don’t get likes and comments. We have to help them understand online conflicts need to be solved properly, not quickly, and how to avoid being “recruited” into someone else’s conflict. When dealing with online relations parents can:

  • Talk about “kinds of friends” (friends vs followers)
  • Discuss that not getting “likes” doesn’t mean they are not “liked”, and a lack of response could also mean the person messaged is offline for a while - teach patience
  • Work with children to understand how their personality plays out online
    • Are they “alpha good” or “alpha bad”?
    • Do they try to please everyone?
    • Are they introverted?
  • Discuss whether “social rules” are different for boys and girls, and why or why not
  • Determine how conflicts can be resolved, including a possible face-to-face meeting

Discuss strategies to deal with being excluded digitally. Here are some conversation starters:


    • Do you think some kids feel left out on social media?
    • Describe a time you felt left out on social media?
    • Describe a time you didn’t post because you thought someone would feel left out?
    • What do you do if you see a post and feel left out?
    • Do you feel like you’ll be missing out if you’re not tagged in a post?
    • Do you think people deliberately post to make others feel left out? Why would someone do that?

Online Social Skills
Spend time talking to your child about healthy behaviour. Some topics of conversation can include:

  • Sharing embarrassing photos
  • Starting rumours anonymously
  • Instigating trouble between two people
  • Pointing out who “unfollowed” whom
  • Starting online communities to deliberately exclude

Here is a social skills assessment parents can use with children:

  • Can your child articulate the difference between a friend and a follower?
  • Does your child realize they don’t have to friend someone to be polite?
  • Can your child self-govern their texting activity?
  • Can your child handle unwanted attention in a clear and direct manner?
  • Is your child comfortable enough with excusing themselves from a group chat that is negative?
  • Does your child take online conflict offline, and keep it civil?
  • Does your child come to you for advice when there is some kind of online trouble or conflict?
  • Is your child aware that photos are a form of communication? (be it a form of code, intentional or unintentional communication)

School Life in the Digital Age
Probably needless to say, distraction is a major issue. Young people tend to have multiple windows open, with multiple devices, music / video and chat apps open. There is such a massive amount of data available that the nature of school work has changed dramatically. (not to mention communication) It’s important that parents learn school technology practices and policies, as well as understand your child’s engagement with technology and homework.

Strategies for home could include:

  • No double-screening (though I would suggest that sometimes the nature of homework may require two screens to be open)
  • Do homework in a common area of the home, such as the living room
  • Do non-internet based homework first
  • Speak to teachers and administrators about homework apps that will appropriately help with homework


With children, parents and educators have to discuss things such as academic honesty, producing original work, how to collaborate, and when sharing work is and isn’t okay.


Works Cited
Heitner, Devorah. Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. Brookline,
MA: Bibliomotion, Inc, 2016. Print.

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