Developing the Social Self

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Edutopia on 24 January 2013

I tried to write a single piece on raising digital kids at home – but childhood is just too epic a journey for a single piece. Still, the overall strategy for technology in the home is the same from birth to high school graduation: match their developmental level, and make sure they understand whatever medium they are using from the inside out: who made this, how does it work, and what does it want from me?

Winning the Bigger Game

These sorts of questions become relevant once you’ve got a tween on your hands. Now the child has moved from developing basic physical skills to developing social ones. While they should be free to play and gather data electronically for an hour or two daily (any screen time counts against whatever daily budget you set), this shouldn’t become their primary outlet for meaningful social engagement.

Why? It’s not really social! Social development is a body-to-body, face-to-face affair. As our social selves form, we learn to read and send messages to other people. This is when we learn most of the 94% of communication that occurs non-verbally: body positions, tone of voice, pupils dilating or contracting . . . in other words, the stuff you can’t see in a chat room or even a 4-inch video window.

I would keep tweens from exploring Facebook and other purportedly social spaces until they themselves are fully socialized. Confine them to net activity and video games that are largely self-contained, or that strictly limit the range of social interactions available. MoshiMonsters and Disney Fairies, for example, are beginner game worlds where the ways in which kids can interact are limited to leaving little notes or sending presents.

This is also the age where console games and even handhelds can be brought into their lives – as long as parents maintain authority over when and how they are used. iPads and iPods and NintendoDS games don’t have to be kept in a kid’s bedroom. Locks and keys are not draconian measures!

Let your children enjoy and learn from this stuff, but let them know from the outset that these are not mere toys; there are people on the other side of the screen – developers and programmers – whose job it is to make it really hard for a kid to stop playing. These are not nice people, and part of the object of the game is to be able to turn it off whenever you want to. If you can’t turn it off, it means you’re losing the bigger game. Finally, your children’s ability to turn the game off when they are supposed to is the only way for them to win more hours of play. Every minute they stay on past the time limit you set costs them five minutes the next day. And yes, it’s easier to start this way than institute such measures two months after the Wii arrives.

Safe Access

If you get five good years of technology and media under your belts using these measures, then it will be easier to implement the commonsense measures you simply have to take with teenagers. More important, your kids will already be more aware than most about the motivations behind the websites and developers competing for their attention. An app is not just an app: it is a marketing plan, an influence platform, and an effort at manipulation. This doesn’t mean it’s bad – just that it has a purpose.

Most of us – especially young people – are unaware that the virtual environments they inhabit may not be constructed with their best interests in mind.

That’s why I’ve come around to the belief that teenagers shouldn’t be online until they understand how to create their own online spaces. Just as learning a language means learning to speak, and learning to read means first learning the same alphabet one would need to write, kids should not immerse themselves in digital environments until they are aware of how those environments are constructed. Only then are such places demystified to the point where young people can engage with them on their own terms, rather than making legal and cognitive agreements they may not even know exist. What does this mean? For starters, learning basic HTML – the language that makes web pages look and act the way they do. Teens should know that databases exist, and they should know what they are. They should understand that every keystroke they make is etched in a memory more permanent than if it had been etched into the side of the Parthenon – and infinitely more searchable.

The more they know about the people and companies behind the screen, as well as the way those folks do what they do, the more kids will understand why we parents insist that the computer be used and kept in the family room or dining room instead of a bedroom. The computer isn’t a bad or dirty thing, but it is a portal to the outside world. It provides access to love and hate, sex and war, ideas and ignorance, support and abuse. Just like the front doors to our homes, computers may welcome our dearest friends, but anyone can knock – which is why our bedrooms are generally the furthest thing in the house from these openings to the street.

Good Digital Hygiene

When computer use happens in the midst of the home rather than in isolation, we are available to filter and explain a bit of what might be happening on there. If nothing else, this activity is occurring in the context of other human relationships and values.

That goes for smartphones, too. Lights out means phones out – even out of the bedroom. If you follow this rule yourself, it will be easier to make everyone in your house follow it, too (and you’ll sleep better sleep for not fooling your eyes and brain that it’s daylight every time you answer a text message). Exceptions to the rule are that Hurricane Sandy hit, or the kids are at a sleepover. “Johnny may ask me to the dance” is not an exception.

Ultimately, computer literacy must be a prerequisite to computer use. I’m not saying that they should know how to open a machine and fix it, but that they understand something about the algorithmic, expression-based platforms on which they are asking to spend so much of their time and energy. This is where schools should come in, exposing students to coding languages while also helping them to think critically about digital tools and virtual spaces.

Until America catches up with South Korea, Estonia, and pretty much every other developed nation in the world in this regard, however, it’s up to parents to arm their young people with the practices that will encourage good digital hygiene and a solid grasp of this increasingly influential platform for human engagement and creativity.

Resources for Raising Digitally Healthy Kids