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Technology Fear Therapy for Parents and Schools

Just in time for the Halloween season comes this post inspired by Wes Fryer (@wfryer). A few months ago I noticed a change on Wes’ Twitter profile to now include the job title of “Technology Fear Therapist”. See below:

Notice the title change by Wes…subtle

Annually, I travel to all the booster club meetings and church groups around my district giving talks around technology, social media, and our kids. His title change, while arguably un-subtle, struck a chord with me when it comes to those in my role in a school district. I’d say this same role applies to the teacher that uses technology meaningfully in their classroom or the parent that uses it as a tool in their homes.

We have entered an age of extremism in some ways. Everything is good or everything is bad. It’s either black or white, there is no grey area. Technology, being fairly new on the scene, has seen the brunt of this extremism as you can scan articles, blog posts, Facebook rants, tweets, and even commercials like this one here that are intended to subtly shame people for having their phones out. Parents and schools are feeling judged, whether justified or not, about their usage of technology and that of their kids. What’s interesting is, I don’t see the same level of judgment when it comes to a kid that reads too much or a kid that paints too much. However, once that kid reads or creates on a screen, judgment ensues.

This reminds me of an H.P. Lovecraft quote that I use quite often is:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”

This fear of the unknown has affected how we approach technology usage with our kids and could debilitate the future wellness of our kids. As with anything in life, balance is what we should be trying to achieve. Being fearful of technology or social media or banning it all together doesn’t help with that balance.  My hope in this article and the accompanying talks is to empower parents and schools to work with kids on this balance. To do so, we need to first look at what is creating or increasing the fear and then determine how do we turn that around so that we can embrace the changes around us.

A Disclaimer on “Research”

Know this, research can be used negatively or positively to persuade an audience. Part of the extremism I mentioned above around technology is usually accompanied by a line that looks something like this: “More and more research is showing that [insert tech term here] is bad for kids.”  Let’s unpack that for a moment. The first part of that sentence isn’t fact-based at all, it’s an opinion to the person writing it that they perceive an increase in research towards one direction or another. The truth is, there is more research out there (which happens over time naturally), but it’s in both directions and sides of the argument (again, remember the extremism).

I recently had an enlightening discussion with a colleague (Dr. Holly Moore) around research and how it’s viewed and used. Essentially, saying the words “there is research out there” supporting a side to an argument doesn’t really make it so (obviously). However, linking to research in the form of scholarly research articles that have been vetted at a university or medical level can be powerful. Links to a New York Times post or a blog post don’t qualify as actually vetted research, those are just the opinions of the writer, meant to persuade readers or increase readership.

Let’s look at the following example that was recently shared with me: A Dark Consensus on Screens and Kids. The title gives me pause immediately as it implies there is some sort of national agreement on what follows. Then take a look at the tag-line “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones” – that’s a major red flag and should add some level of skepticism about what is to follow unless….it supports your own narrative. Looking over the article, it’s riddled with anecdotes and stories from a handful of people. Another red flag – This article includes ZERO links to actual research. At the end, there are some links about some big name Silicon Valley people that made choices around their own kids and technology usage.  Note that the attribution to Mark Zuckerberg isn’t actually Mark, it’s an associate at his former company. There is a link to Melinda Gates where she actually talks about working to balance tech with her kids and even the Steve Jobs article where he talks about he limited technology use at home. That’s a much different story than “consensus of Silicon Valley figure heads is that screens are bad.” But you can see why the title is so attractive and why for some, it helps support their narrative.

It reminds me of a post I wrote earlier this year – EVERYONE Who Reads This Blog Becomes Smarter, Study Shows – as a way to lure in readership. Even in the cases of research that is not just an opinion piece like the NYTimes article above, you have to look at who is sponsoring the research as it may be used to push an agenda in one direction or the other.  The larger concern as a community is that people read these articles and consider them to be absolute truth. This only expands the technology fear and is exacerbated by the following two effects.

The Echo Chamber Effect

We are creating our own echo chambers around all sorts of topics (especially politics at the moment). Whether it be on Facebook or chatting with other parents at our kid’s soccer game, our conversations influence our actions and reactions. However, our conversational circles are extremely closed and lack, in many cases, a diversity of thought or opinion. We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people that share our morals and beliefs. This also means when someone from our trusted circle brings forth an example or blog post that supports our beliefs, we believe to be a hard fact even if it isn’t. This “Echo Chamber Effect” leads to an increase of the next Technology Fear Factor…

The Anecdotal Evidence Multiplier

Someone saw someone once do something inappropriate with technology. Someone heard from a friend that a kid was having behavioral problems due to screen time. Someone shared an article like the NYTimes one posted above that is really just a series of anecdotes, but cause for concern. This story or situation is shared and re-shared in the trusted circle which therefore causes the human mind to feel it must be widespread when in fact, it’s a single situation shared multiple times. This isn’t unique to technology by the way, but lately it seems that tech is the largest passenger on the Anecdotal Express.  Whenever I hear of someone struggling with their kids and technology, I try to remember there are two sides to every story and there are multiple other factors that might be having an affect on the child (family environment, sleep, diet, expectations, etc.) before I take it in as fact.

Hearing a story, even from someone in your trusted circle, doesn’t mean it’s 100% fact. The culmination of many of the above effects is evidenced by this recent findings from an Australian company called Reachout. (somewhat similar to our CommonSenseMedia here in the states)  One of the lead findings is that 45% of parents worry about social media usage with their teens more so than the 25% who worry about drug, tobacco and alcohol usage with teens.  Technology has now become more dangerous in these parents’ minds than things that actually do physical damage to the body. That’s not to say there isn’t the possibility of emotional and psychological damage due to social media (more on that in a minute), but that we are more worried about the unknown of social media versus the known vices we all grew up around prior to adult life.

Social Media

As you can tell by the above data, social media can seem like a scary place for some. Despite all of its perceived ills, there are some positives as well. According to a Pew Internet Study (May 2018), the feelings of teens when it comes to social media is pretty mixed. While 24% feel that social media negatively impacts their lives, 31% feel it adds some benefit. The rest fall in the middle of either indifference or no impact.

So whether we like it or not, it does have an effect on kids’ lives. As educators, we need to work with students on this impact and teach them how to balance its effect so that positive number is increased (or at least lower the negative one). As parents, we need to have open and ongoing discussions with our own kids around situations that arise on social media, just like real life.

Our district has spent the last two years investing heavily in curriculum and resources around social emotional learning. Technology and social media are intrinsically tied to this initiative. That said, there are some very intriguing resources available to the general public around the topics of social media, mindfulness, and tech-life balance (scroll to the bottom for these resources).

Screen Time

The debate around screen time has been happening since the 1950’s and the invention of the television. It’s not a new argument, but as we have seen an increase in screens entering our lives, there has also been an increase on research around their effect on our eyes and minds. The American Academy of Pediatrics  has put out guidelines around screen time for the last several decades and recently updated some of their recommendations. Schools around the country are faced with a conundrum when it comes to screen time and kids, so keeping the recommendations of the AAP in mind are key when issuing school work on screens. In my parent talks, I reference the following graphic to show that screen time can fall into four quadrants and even within each quadrant is a continuum based on the media being used or consumed.

Screen time can fall into these four quadrants

As a parent, teacher or school district, it’s important to discern how the screens are being used inside the classroom (a place that schools can control) and inside the home (a place where parents can control).  Keeping on the same page as a community around this topic will strengthen the connections being made and help students learn balance and self-management as they age out of our programs.

Trends

A large amount of energy has been spent around the research and effects of social media and screen time and with good reason. These two topics even deserve their own sections in this post (above), so I think it’s important to note that these are two of the top issues weighing on the minds of parents. That said, sometimes I try to think and predict what’s next? A few trends I see globally that will have an effect on our kids are:

The Internet of Things (IoT): When we increase technology access, we increase the chances for something to happen (whether it be good or bad).  On the smart home front, I had my own parenting flop recently when I gave all three of my daughter’s an Amazon Echo Dot in their room and then FAILED to set up any type of restrictions right away. While they didn’t get into anything too bad (turns out the Chordette’s song Lollipop has an alternate version by Lil’ Wayne), they were able to freely purchase anything they liked. “Alexa, send me some puppies” and “Echo, send me a pet from the Amazon” were a couple of requests which resulted in the strange delivery below appearing on my doorstep a few days later.

Stuffed animal puppies and a boa constrictor from Amazon! (Turns out my parents were behind this prank)

While the prank above did illicit a fair share of laughs around the Hooker household, it did make me pause and think. As parents in this world of the “Internet of Things”, we have to consider that anything with connectivity has potential benefit and detriment depending on the action of the user. Again, it’s all about the balance.

(for a quick laugh tied to this topic, see my post on “When Smart Homes Attack“)

Augmented and Virtual Reality: The increasing use of augmented and virtual realities in the everyday world will have a tremendous effect on the future of our kids. They’ll be able to pull up their phones or put on some glasses and instantly see shopping deals, directions, and traffic patterns to avoid. Doctors can already use augmented reality tools to locate veins and virtual reality is allowing doctors to train and practice delicate medical procedures.

We can already immerse ourselves in virtual parts of our world and even other worlds (read Earnest Cline’s Ready Player One to see the possibility of this). Just like with smart devices and the internet of things, the increase of technology also means that we’ll need to make sure we increase attention on keeping our tech-infused life balanced. While I see some tremendous benefit to these technologies, I also worry about over-use and misuse of these tools if left unchecked.

The Ever-Changing Role of the Parent

So what does all this mean for the role of parents? As a dad of three little girls, I am both excited and exhausted to think about what the future holds for them when it comes to technology. I know my role as a parent (just as the role of educator) is to help maintain and model what good digital wellness looks like. All three of my girls are different in many ways, but I see this a lot when it comes to their behavior and attitude around screen time (specifically the passive-entertainment based screen time from the graphic above). We have struggled with our middle child around this, but like anything else when it comes to parenting, consistency and communication are the key. We’ve spent a great deal of energy in helping her learn self-management. As the AAP puts it, we need to become media mentors for our kids.

This is NOT easy. The easier solution would be to not have any of our kids deal with technology at all, which is justified by anecdotes and fear-learning stories. Just make it a complete no-tech zone at home, problem solved right? This may be the easier solution in the short-term, but it’s not a long-term way to teach and raise our kids around these tools that will be with them the rest of their lives. Our role as parents and as educators is teaching them the right balance.

After all, we’re raising adults, not children, right?

Tools and Resources for Parents and Schools

This is in no way a comprehensive list, but a good start when it comes to tools and discussion points with parents and school communities around a balanced approach technology usage.

Common Sense Media I’ve mentioned this in this post and several past posts. A great FREE resource for parents when it comes to apps, social media, movies, etc.

Note To Self Podcast – Manoush Zamarodi is an amazing podcast host who brings in people from a variety of industries to discuss how we keep life balanced in this every changing world.

TechHappyLifeA site created by Dr. Mike Brooks (a local Austinite) on tools and tips for balancing a “tech happy” life. I’ve also had the pleasure of watching Dr. Brooks speak and would say he’s a great person to consider brining in to your next parent group meeting. He’s even put out a book recently titled Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World.

Dr. Devorah Heitner – I’ve become familiar with Devorah’s over the years and have seen her present at SXSW here in Austin. I also interviewed her for my own book series around this. He book ScreenWise is a tremendous resource for any parent and I see now that she’s even offering up a Phonewise Boot Camp for parents!

Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential – The Education Initiative out of UC-Santa Barbara has some potential for helping high school students when it comes to actual strategies and training around digital wellness and life-balance. Dr. Michael Mrazek and his team of researchers are discovering new ways to help schools with this and with the help of the Department of Education, hope to be reaching at least a million high school students yearly from now until 2025.

Right-Click: Parenting Your Teenager in a Digital Media World – This book came highly recommended to me from colleague Brianna Hodges and has many easy to digest scenarios and tools for parents of teens and pre-teens.

Kerry GallagherKerry is another colleague that I’ve come to know over the years when researching digital wellness. She is a practitioner (she’s an AP at a school in the Northeast) and a tremendous speaker on a variety of topics but especially in the world of digital connection and our youth.

Mobile Learning Mindset: A Parent’s Guide to Supporting Digital Age Learners(shameless plug alert) A 10-chapter book I wrote around this topic along with tools and scenarios for parents to consider.  Got to pay the bills some way!