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When Should I Give My Kid a Smartphone?

We recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of the launch of the iPhone. That means the iPhone has been in production two years longer than my oldest child. Every student in elementary school today cannot fathom a world where smartphones don’t exist. I LOVE this Douglas Adams about technology in our lives:

 

With the invent of the smartphone being so new to those of us over 35 yet part of the natural way of things for those under the age of 10, you can see how this can become a major topic of contention. One of the major discussions amongst parents in my community and others is when is the right time to give a child their first phone. This is an ongoing debate in the Hooker household as well. While my kids have access to devices like iPads (both at home and at school) there are times where it might be helpful for them to have access to a phone.

Here’s one example that was shared with me recently:

When we were kids and we went to a friend’s house, we had to call our parents to let them know we had arrived.  The only problem with that solution today is that many households are getting rid of landlines which makes it hard to communicate with your child when they aren’t within your grasp.

Now, some could argue that may seem like more of a convenience then anything and to just get your kid a “dumb phone” for that purpose. While we’re still on the fence about when to give our oldest her first phone, here are a list of reasons why it might make sense to do it sooner rather than later.

Becoming a Good Digital Citizen

What does it mean to be a good citizen much less a digital one? Much of this practice happens at home at an EARLY age when we teach our kids how to be respectful, say “please” and “thank you” and not to chew with their mouth open. While there is much more to being a good citizen than just that, we do start building those traits as soon as our kids can speak for the most part.  Enter in the smartphone and the world online.

While many of the rules of modern society apply to an online environment, some do not. The ability to be “anonymous” (I put it in air-quotes because no one is truly anonymous online) on the internet can bring out the worst in some people. Just look at the comment section of any online discussion or better yet, listen to the story of Lizzie Velasquez (video below), who’s father I used to work with. Lizzie was looking at YouTube one day when she came across a video that was titled “The World’s Ugliest Woman” and was shocked to find footage of herself on the video. While this is an extreme example of what the online world can do to people, her reaction and subsequent inspirational talks turned what could have been life-devastating to life-defining.

The sooner we start to work with our kids on appropriate online behavior the better. When we thrust them into this world in the middle of their teen years, many bad habits have already started to form. Throw in the fact that they have “teenage” brain and don’t believe a thing their parents try to teach them, and you start to see that it might be more beneficial to have those conversations about online behavior at an earlier age.

Handling a Cyberbully or Troll

Lizzie’s example from above was just one of countless examples of cyberbullies or trolls that you can find on the web. Bullying has been around long before the days of Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver. With social media and instant communication, it is now easier to torment or harass someone. Every year it seems, there are stories out there about teens committing suicide due to being the target of a cyberbully. Your first reaction as a parent is to protect your kids and prohibit them from entering this online world. I know that’s mine. You figure, if they aren’t online, they won’t have to deal with a cyberbully.

These stories are tragic and shouldn’t be ignored, but we also shouldn’t completely put our kids in a cyber-bubble. The numbers of teens that have experienced or witnessed some form of cyberbullying is nearly 90%. However, bullying behavior, whether online or face-to-face begins as early as Kindergarten. As kids get older, they tend to be more reluctant to report bullying to parents. While this may not seem like the best reason to give your 10-year old a phone, one thing is for sure, the sooner they learn how to handle this sort of online behavior with your support, the better.

Regardless of when you give them a phone, you need to be actively involved in your kid’s online and daily life. That means understanding the social media sites they frequent. While we may not understand the fascination with the SnapChat dog-face filter, we should look for opportunities to have our kids teach us the ins and outs of a platform while we play the role of student. Not only will this open up lines of communication, but it will also give you an opportunity to relay some life wisdom to your child and discuss scenarios of what to do when a troll or cyberbully attacks.

Again, just like with citizenship, when our kids are in their primary grades they is a strong likelihood they will witness, become a victim, or participate in some form of bullying. We need to be involved and on the look out for signs like depression, anxiety, anger or fear. Unlike face to face situations, we have a multitude of digital tools to help us monitor and track when a cyberbullying situation may be taking place. I like the advice given in this article which includes setting up a Google Alert for your child’s name. The sooner we can have these hard conversations and problem-solve the solutions the better.

Data Privacy

This past year, I started having social media and cyber safety talks with 4th and 5th graders. I did this for many of the reasons stated in this post but mainly because I felt like a lot of bad online habits were already forming by the time students were in middle school. One of the most interesting discoveries in talking with 10 and 11 year olds wasn’t that they don’t know what a floppy disk was (although I found that depressing), it was that they were adept at identifying what information to not tell a stranger online.

They knew not to give out their personal information, address, credit card number, etc. whenever they were involved in an online discussion or game. However, when I showed them the terms and services agreements that often pop-up where a company wants access to your information, most just said they click “ok” or “I agree” and continue on (Parents are guilty of this too). A stranger can come in all different forms, from an online person acting like a child to a multi-million dollar company stealing your information and selling it to others.

Be careful what you agree to…

Having kids check with their parents before downloading malware or accepting terms and agreements that make their data privacy vulnerable is important. When kids enter middle school, they are testing their independence and for the most part, decide they can make these choices for themselves. While it’s important that they gain some independence, we need to scaffold and build a foundation of understanding in them early on when it comes to their data privacy online. Otherwise, they might all be trying to give a Prince in Nigeria money by accident.

Learning How To Balance Life

Research shows that most habits and much of a child’s personality are formed by the age of 9. One thing we started working with our kids on as early as 4 was self-monitoring their screen time and appropriate times to use technology in everyday life. While we as parents don’t always model this the best, our kids have begun to internalize the best practices that come with using technology and social interactions in everyday life.

By scaffolding these skills early on in their life while their habits are forming, we will likely be more successful battling against things like internet addiction or social isolationism. Will there still be battles in the future as our kids become teenagers? Absolutely. But by building those habits in their early years, we’ll have a strong foundation to build on. My wife and I are far from perfect parents and still have moments where we battle this digital balance with our kids. However, as the years go on, we’ve found that our kids have become much more cognizant of an overuse of screen time.  Recently, during my usual Sunday football viewing, my middle child told me, “I think that’s enough screen time for the day, let’s go out and play.”  This type of internalized self-awareness doesn’t happen without tons of practice while they are in their highest habit-forming years.

Building Healthy Relationships

Part of that life balance besides just screen time, is building the skills to have healthy relationships both online and in person. Many adults and older teens, to whom the smartphone is still considered “new” have struggled with the management of peer-to-peer and parent-to-child interactions. Some of this is due to the instant gratification and distraction that comes with constantly checking our phones.  Modeling when to be on our phones and when not to is one of the best ways to show how to have healthy relationships and interactions. Modeling can only go so far in teaching our kids the best practices of relationships though. Having some access to a device to “practice” and fully internalize this skill early on will help as they enter their later teen years.

Avoid Parent Shaming

At this point I should put a MAJOR disclaimer: This post is not to be considered a persuasive essay on why we should give every kid a smartphone at the age of 6. Let’s agree on something – every child and family is different. Some kids can easily handle the social pressures of online interaction early on in life. Others have noticeable changes in behavior just by having access to a screen for more than 5 minutes. Regardless of which child you are raising, teaching them to be digitally aware is not easy. But then again, neither is parenting.

Much in the way that I won’t judge or shame a parent that gives their child a phone in first grade, I won’t judge or shame a parent that has chosen to wait until they are in high school. We all carry with us a variety of ideals and ideas when it comes to raising our child. I have respect for those that are choosing to wait to give their kids a phone until later in life. A smartphone is an expensive device that requires a level of responsibility that some kids can’t manage. The truth is, as a parent, we’ll never know the perfect age to give our child their first smartphone.

But keeping it out of the hands of our kids hands because of our fears or worry of being shamed isn’t right either. This post is more meant to give parents that have chosen to give their kid a phone some skills to work on and be aware of. Why not take advantage of building those skills early on in life rather than later when the more harmful online encounters happen?  Doing so could give your child an edge on their peers when it comes to online and social interaction. It could also create a trusting, open line of communication between child and parent throughout their teenage years and beyond.

 

How Did the Textbook Go Extinct?

Our summer visit to the land before time

Our summer visit to the land before time

My daughters love talking about dinosaurs.  This summer we visited the dinosaur park in Cabazon, CA (made famous by Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) just so they could climb inside a dinosaur. I’ve shown my oldest the original Jurassic Park (not the scary parts) and she has begun to ask me, “Daddy, what happened to the dinosaurs?  Are there still some around? Did they become birds?”

Lots of questions and lots of theories but it’s made me think about our own educational landscape and the changes that have been happening dramatically the last 5-7 years when it comes to mobility, social media and content creation.  We still have a lot of dinosaurs walking the earth in education, namely the major textbook companies. What is going to happen to them?  Will they go extinct or evolve?

Today, I attended a State Board of Education session on “Educating the Digital Generation.”  I was pleased to see many educators like Scott Floyd (@woscholar) and superintendents like Randy Moczygemba (@rmocyzgembanb) present to share their frustrations and concerns around the digital textbook industry. (You can view their testimony here: http://www.house.state.tx.us/video-audio/) Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 7.54.13 PMHowever, being that textbook publishing is a big business in education, the major textbook companies were also given time to not only defend their platforms, but also ask for more support.  The SBOE in Texas has some progressive members that support digital learning in schools but they also have some that seem to be steeped in learning from prehistoric times.  One such board member mentioned that “kids are stupid” when it comes to social media and that “using the slide rule is better for learning math than a graphing calculator.”

What does all of this mean for major textbook companies? I have an outlook for them, and judging by recent events, their future is bleak.  Let’s look at some signs that spell the demise of the “Big 3” (Pearson, HMH, and McGraw Hill) as well as the massive educational asteroid that will ultimately wipe them out.

Open Educational Resources

With the government’s recent push for more Open Educational Resources (OER) and the already massively available “flexbooks” through sites like CK12.org, we no longer have to purchase an expensive, unreliable online textbook from a major company.  Instead of spending millions upon millions of dollars on textbooks, districts can instead dedicate that money towards staffing, technology, and paid online resources that will actually help kids with learning.  In Texas, we have our Instructional Materials Allotment (IMA) which allows for “local control” of funds so districts can choose what they want to purchase when it comes to instructional materials.  However, the most recent statistics show that 93% of those dollars are spent on traditional textbook resources, mainly from the Big 3.  Why is that the case if there is still local control?  Primarily it’s the “safe” thing to do.  No district wants to stick their neck out too far to purchase something not vetted or…*gasp*…perhaps even save that money for other instructional uses.

Crowd Sourced Content

In addition to the OER resources out there, teachers and schools are sharing more than ever before.  Take a look at the hundreds of twitter chats happening online daily centered around education to see the explosion of sharing that is taking place.  Some of this sharing comes in the form of “paid sharing” via a program like TeachersPayTeachers.com.  I don’t begrudge an already underpaid teacher trying to make a buck (although profiting off other underpaid teachers is a slight concern), I do think the more open we are, the better the learning will be for our students.  I recently listened to Tim Berners-Lee, the “Father of the world wide web”, on the TED stage talking about how if he had made the internet cost money, it would have never turned into the great collective network that it is today. I think if we freely share resources and best practices, that crowd sourced content will ultimately make the Textbook-destroying asteroid even bigger.

MYOT (Make Your Own Textbook)

Ok, so a bit of a play on words of the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement in Ed Tech, but when you take the OER resources and the crowd-sourced content being shared, why not just get the best teachers in the district or region and have them create their own book?  It’s not about the book, it’s about the learning standards right?  Paying teachers even HALF of what we pay textbook companies to make a better book, would not only save a district thousands, but also create a better product that is ultimately district-owned.  We’ve started down this road with the Texas History adoption, and during today’s state testimony, many districts reported successfully building and deploying their own “textbooks”.   I see this as the next evolution in content provision and can even see it further evolving to where kids start to create their own textbook.  After all, teaching the material is the best way to learn right? The meteor is approaching….

Publishers vs. Programmers

Some of the dinosaurs did indeed evolve and survived.  Those smaller mammals that were more nimble (i.e. smaller content publishers) survived and even thrived following the extinction level event.  When working with the Big 3, you must realize that they are publishers, not programmers.  I can’t begin to tell you the amount of man hours wasted with data uploads, failed ebook downloads, incorrect content, and massive lack of technical design when it comes to digital textbooks from the larger providers.  While I won’t mention names I can tell you that one company even creates a “bridge” product to connect it’s multiple products and product teams. Another when asked directly about integration with our student information system (SIS), stated that they “never mentioned it would be seamless.”

While you would think an eTextbook would save money, in many cases, because of how they are bundled, these cost districts almost the same amount of money.  In many ways these companies take fat checks from schools and districts all over the land to cover their massive bottom-lines, not to better serve districts.  The smaller, more nimble companies, on the other hand, start with programming and build a better project based on client feedback (that client being the teachers and students).

The Final Explosion and Aftermath –

Several districts here in Texas have started to join forces to fight these behemoths and their poor practices and heavy costs.  We’ve pleaded with them to join up with a company like Clever, which handles the automation of data from SIS to textbook company (at NO COST to the school or district).  Two of the three major textbook companies have told me that we “don’t need that kind of integration” or “sure it’s free for you, but it costs us.”  The fact that a company that gets millions of dollars from districts actually has the gall to say that is appalling.

And so, with this global killer approaching their industry, it’s obvious that the only thing keeping them alive is their sheer size and girth.  But like the dinosaurs, those that don’t evolve will become extinct.  And in some ways, maybe the educational world will be a better place because of it.

A textbook museum from the future?

A textbook museum from the future? Perhaps…