Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Ageby James P. Steyer
A smart, urgently needed book that helps parents and their kids navigate today’s online landscape—from the founder and CEO of the nation’s leading authority on kids and the media.
Now, more than ever, parents need help in navigating their kids’ online, media-saturated lives. Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, the/b>
A smart, urgently needed book that helps parents and their kids navigate today’s online landscape—from the founder and CEO of the nation’s leading authority on kids and the media.
Now, more than ever, parents need help in navigating their kids’ online, media-saturated lives. Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, the nation’s leading kidsand- media organization, and the father of four children, knows that many parents and teachers—unlike their technology-savvy kids—may be tourists in the online world.
In this essential book, Steyer—a frequent commentator on national TV and radio— offers an engaging blend of straightforward advice and anecdotes that address what he calls RAP, the major pitfalls relating to kids’ use of media and technology: relationship issues, attention/addiction problems, and the lack of privacy. Instead of shielding children completely from online images and messages, Steyer’s practical approach gives parents essential tools to help filter content, preserve good relationships with their children, and make common sense, value-driven judgments for kids of all ages.
Not just about Facebook, this comprehensive, no-nonsense guide to the online world, media, and mobile devices belongs in the hands of all parents and educators raising kids in today’s digital age.
“Steyer has penned a vital wake-up call for parents and government. He is a champion of both kids and the digital revolution. But he's neither giddy nor an apologist. He recognizes that companies like Facebook and Google and video game makers sway our kids, how they think and read and study and behave. If you're a parent and want some shrewd tips on parenting in this digital age and how to protect your children, read this book.”Ken Auletta, author of Googled: The End of the World as We Know It
“In this courageous book, Jim Steyer pulls no punches. Whether or not you agree with his critique of Facebook and its Silicon Valley siblings, you must grapple with the deep issues that he raises.”Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
“Jim Steyer is a relentless advocate for kids. Focusing on how the media intersects with their lives, Jim boldly takes on the issues, exploring the good, the bad, and the ugly alike—always the first to begin the conversation. I urge every parent to read this book, so that we can be prepared to navigate how new forms of media and communication are transforming children’s lives.”—Cyma Zarghami, President, Nickelodeon Group
"Smart, savvy, sophisticated, down-to-earth. A book that parents and children can read together. A conversation-starter for families."Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together
“For two decades Jim Steyer has been among the most prescient commentators about media and our children's lives, providing essential advice to parents about how to navigate these treacherous digital interactions. If Jim's approach has a fault it is tremendous faith in information to empower parents. What a wonderful faith to have.”Ezekiel J. Emanuel, M.D., Ph.D.
“Steyer’s ‘common sense’ medicine for parents, educators, and others will promote better information, better decisions, and ultimately, better health for our kids, families and communities.” A. Eugene Washington, M.D., M.Sc., Vice Chancellor, UCLA Health Sciences, and Dean, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
"Jim Steyer is the Paul Revere of the pixel universe, warning parents of the perils of social media. Whether they're adding friends on Facebook or meeting friends at the park, kids need to be kept safe from danger. Steyer's book is an indispensable safety tool for parents everywhere."Congressman Ed Markey, U.S. House of Representatives
“James Steyer has provided a road map to transform the seductive online world into a healthy environment for families.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“A wake-up call…. To get the most benefit out of the Web’s vast offerings, we need to more closely examine how we, or how our kids, are spending time online. It’s a hard thesis to contradict.”Washington Post
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Read an Excerpt
Talking Back to Facebook
It’s 6:30 p.m.—dinnertime at our house—and food’s on the table. I call seven-year-old Jesse, who’s out on the street riding his bike, and he slowly strolls in with a big grin on his face.
“Hey, Dad,” he says, “can I borrow your iPhone after dinner so I can play that bowling game on it for ten minutes?”
I laugh. He knows the answer, but he’s asking anyway.
I start rounding up our other three kids. Carly, fourteen, is in the living room, bopping her head rhythmically while she listens to music on her iPod. I stand in front of her, loudly intoning—to penetrate her earbuds—that it’s time for dinner.
“Just a sec, Dad,” she says, nodding her head. “Lemme finish this song.”
I have no idea what she’s listening to, and I still haven’t seen our seventeen-year-old, Kirk, but I know where I’ll find him. I walk into the family room, where Kirk is glued to the big-screen TV, clutching his Xbox controller and playing his favorite video game, FIFA Soccer.
“Kirk,” I tell him, “dinner’s ready.”
“Can’t I finish the game, Dad?” he begs. “Just a few more minutes.”
“Nope! That’s enough video games for today. You’ve hit your one-hour limit. It’s time for dinner, now! But after that,” I say, “why don’t we toss the baseball outside? I’d like to see that new curveball you’ve been talking about.”
He grunts, switches off his controller, and mutters a few monosyllables as he follows me to the dinner table. The other kids are already sitting down, including Lily, who just graduated from high school.
“Hey, Daddy, how was your day? Can I borrow the car tonight?” she asks, sticking her cell phone in her shirt pocket. “I just saw on Facebook that there’s a party, and all my friends are going.” She gives me that adorable grin that always works.
My wife, Liz, and I smile at each other. We’re glad to have all the kids at home for a family dinner. We try to eat together at least four or five times a week. All phones and devices are strictly banned at the dinner table, parents’ included. It’s an important ritual: forty-five minutes or so of completely unplugged, screen-free time in a family life that’s overflowing with digital media. Like most kids today, Lily, Kirk, Carly, and Jesse live much of their lives in a digital world. Technology is their native language, and as devices converge and become more capable and mobile, they’re using them—far more easily than Liz and I—to connect, create, and communicate constantly, from almost anywhere, about virtually everything.
As parents, where do we draw the line? How do we balance the obvious benefits of computers and other digital technology with the growing risks of addiction, distraction, loss of innocence, and lack of privacy? With our kids’ digital reality changing so fast, how do we even know what they’re being exposed to, what we should worry about, and what common sense rules we should set?
Personally, new digital technology often seems overwhelming to me. I feel like I’m always playing catch-up, even though it’s my job as founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, the nation’s leading authority on the effects of media and technology on kids. The more I speak to education and child development experts and thousands of fellow parents and teachers around the country, the more I’m moved by the enormity of the changes occurring before our eyes with so little discussion and understanding of their impact on kids and society.
Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who developed the idea of multiple intelligences, calls this an “epochal change.” He compares the revolution in digital media to the invention of the printing press because of its extraordinary impact on the way we communicate, share information, and interact with other human beings. It’s hard to believe that the biggest technology challenge parents faced in 1990 was controlling their kids’ use of telephone landlines. Boy, have things changed, and our kids’ social, emotional, and cognitive development skills have been profoundly affected. At times, it seems like they’re subjects of a vast, uncontrolled social experiment. And it’s an experiment that has dramatic implications for our notions of childhood, learning, and human relationships. As parents and educators, we have to engage with this new reality and influence it, as well as our kids, in healthy, responsible ways.
The fact is, kids are thrown into this brave new world from the day they’re born. When parents post cute pictures of their babies in adorable outfits and poses, they’re creating the first outlines of their kids’ digital footprint. By the time they’re two, more than 90 percent of all children have an online history, and many have figured out how to take pictures and watch cartoons on their parents’ smartphones. At five, many are typing on a computer keyboard and downloading and playing games on cell phones and tablet computers. I clearly remember the day when our daughter Carly, at age six, “Googled” herself for the first time.
By seven or eight, some kids have phones of their own, and they’re playing in virtual worlds and staring at screens when they’re together with friends. At ten or eleven, they’re downloading and streaming Web content, playing online games like World of Warcraft, and begging for smartphones and Facebook accounts. By twelve or thirteen, most kids have Facebook pages—with or without their parents’ permission. They’re using technology in the classroom and texting friends or Facebooking them instead of talking to them in person. Kids are getting online at home, at friends’ houses, at the library, and on the bus. As they become teens, they fully inhabit a virtual world with online and offline identities and special languages, social rules, and relationships—usually with no adult supervision. They’re performing, creating, and posing for invisible audiences—often unaware that, even when they change and mature, their online errors of judgment and personal postings might not go away. There’s no “eraser” button, and the consequences of youthful mistakes can be enormously painful.
For the past five years, I’ve been witnessing how social networks, especially Facebook, have transformed the lives of my students at Stanford University, where I teach classes on civil rights, civil liberties, and children’s issues. The technology has literally changed the way people relate to each other, get together, and present their image to the world. Interestingly, when I polled my class recently, more than half of my students said they wished Facebook didn’t exist. Several of them said they didn’t like the way it drained so much of their time and affected their interactions with friends and peers. Many told me that Facebook can diminish the quality and depth of personal relationships and weaken their basic communications skills. But, of course, they had to be on it, they said, because everyone else was.
Facebook, the world’s largest social network site, was cofounded by Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard friend Eduardo Saverin in 2004. It started out as a social networking tool designed exclusively for students at Harvard, but it quickly spread to students at other elite universities like Stanford, Yale, and Columbia. Soon after, Facebook expanded to hundreds of colleges across the nation, demonstrating the extraordinary, viral nature of the Web, especially social networks. In 2005, Facebook opened its site to high school students, and the following year, it welcomed a fast-growing number of adults.
Like other social network sites, Facebook basically operates as a system of interconnected personal profiles—essentially easily customized personal homepages, for which even technological Luddites can choose profile pictures and add many more photos, “status updates,” and personal information. In addition, Facebook users can also comment on each other’s photos and click the “Like” button on a particular image, post, or Web page if they want to give it an electronic “thumbs-up.” The problems come when vulnerable youngsters define themselves by the “Like” button or when comments about photos turn mean, cruel, and hateful, as they often do.
Personally, I think social media sites like Facebook and Google Plus are great ways to connect and stay in touch with old and new friends. I know a lot more about the lives of my old high school buddies, for example, now that many of them have contacted me on Facebook. I’ve also seen how LinkedIn has been a source of great professional connections for friends and colleagues, who use it to stay in touch with work associates, find employment opportunities, and recruit job candidates. Along with Craigslist, LinkedIn has helped revolutionize the hiring process.
But the truth is, kids use social networks differently from adults, in ways that can be hurtful and unhealthy. My eighteen-year-old daughter, Lily, for example, rolls her eyes when grown-ups talk about the positive social experiences they have on Facebook. “When kids go on Facebook,” Lily explains, “it’s a completely different experience—you have no idea.” Instead of using Facebook and other social networks to strengthen face-to-face relationships, she says, many kids, especially teens, use them instead of real human-to-human interactions. Posting and text messaging are quick, efficient, cold ways to communicate, especially when you don’t have to be sensitive to the emotional nuances of facial expressions and tone of voice. But these new forms of electronic communication can also be cruel and damaging, and anonymous online communities can instantly amplify the impact and pain of bullying, gossip, and social exclusion.
One fifteen-year-old girl at a school near our home committed suicide after she discovered, via Facebook, that she hadn’t been invited to a slumber party. That’s a tragic and extreme case, but kids in every town, every day, witness or suffer from cyberbullying. With popular apps like Honesty Box, which allow users to send anonymous, untraceable messages, many kids feel empowered to post anything to and about anyone, no matter how hurtful or untrue. Other top apps, like Compare People, encourage kids to compare and rank themselves in dozens of sensitive categories—like cutest, sexiest, and smartest—against other kids in their social network. And teens build massive “friend lists” on Facebook or “followers” on Twitter to assess and compare their popularity. At a stage of life when peer acceptance is absolutely vital and self-esteem can be very fragile, these impersonal digital tools are often abused, with consequences that can be harmful for millions and tragic for a few.
I’ve been trying to get a handle on what Facebook truly means for kids and the broader society ever since 2007, when I met Mark Zuckerberg at a conference at Google. Today, Facebook is the giant, eight-hundred-pound gorilla of social media. It claims nearly a billion members worldwide, up from only a few million six years ago. It is now the top-visited website in the United States, surpassing Google, and it’s literally revolutionizing the way young people communicate, build relationships, and express their identities—with virtually no thoughtful analysis of its impact. If Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s third largest in population, trailing only China and India. And just like those other emerging global giants, we ignore its growth and power at our own risk.
I decided to call this book Talking Back to Facebook for two reasons. First, Facebook, to me, is the most potent symbol of the digital revolution and the way it’s impacting kids and teens. Second, many of the parents and teachers I encountered while researching this book told me how helpless they feel dealing with Facebook and the onslaught of 24/7 digital reality that it represents. They feel isolated in their concerns about how social networks are affecting their kids’ way of relating to themselves and others, and they feel overwhelmed and powerless to do anything about it. The speed of change has simply been so rapid that they didn’t see these changes coming, and they feel blindsided by the impact.
But parents have the right—indeed, the obligation—to speak up and be heard. They have the right and the responsibility to assert control over how they raise their kids and about new technology platforms that are playing such a powerful role in their children’s lives. I wrote Talking Back to Facebook to empower parents, first and foremost, as well as teachers and young people. The purpose of this book is to give you some of the basic knowledge and information you need to understand what’s going on, as well as a voice in determining the impact on your own kids and our broader culture. Parenting can and does make a huge difference in kids’ lives—and informed, common sense parenting is absolutely essential in this dizzying new digital age.
The issues, of course, are far bigger than Facebook and other social media. There are now approximately 2 billion Internet users across the globe, and more than 5 billion people own cell phones. The implications of this connectivity are simply mind-boggling. According to a recent Nielsen study, the average thirteen- to seventeen-year-old now exchanges 3,339 text messages a month; that’s about 111 a day.1 But their phones aren’t just for texting and occasional phone calls. Young people also use them for listening to music, filming videos, snapping and sharing photos, and going online. Sure, they use their computers to do homework. But they also use them to socialize, stream video, and create movies and songs. They’re not just watching TV, listening to iPods, and playing video games. They’re inhabiting a virtual universe that’s shaping their reality, setting their expectations, guiding their behavior, and defining their interests, choices, and values.
Whether we like it or not, kids are now spending far more time with media and technology than they are with their families or in school. Clocking in at nearly eight hours a day on average (or nearly eleven hours per day when you include multitasking), that’s more time than they spend doing any other single activity.2 What messages about life are they absorbing? Whose messages are they listening to? What are they seeing and learning? And what do we know about the impact on their development and social and emotional health?
We may think of our kids’ online, mobile, and technological activities as their “digital lives.” But to them, their plugged-in, networked world is life. It’s displacing and replacing the real, physical world of interaction and communication that’s always been the core human experience. I was recently in a room with three twelve-year-old girls who were sitting on a couch just inches away from one another. Although they were having a conversation, they weren’t talking to each other. They were texting. They made no eye contact and never glimpsed one another’s expressions or body language. Instead, they sat there staring at their smartphones, fingers flying, exchanging digital messages. That shift from face-to-face to digital communication is an enormous change, and we haven’t even begun to fully understand, or to conduct research on, its enormous impact on kids and society.
Make no mistake. This is a huge change that’s occurring at warp speed. When most of us were tweens and teens, we weren’t sharing details of our personal lives with a vast, invisible, online audience. We weren’t constantly distracted and interrupted by text messages and IMs in the middle of school, homework, and face-to-face conversations. If we did have computers, they were usually tethered to a table or a desk; they had physical boundaries and didn’t go everywhere with us like they do now, in the form of powerful mobile phones—pocket-size minicomputers—that let kids access online information wherever they go. Our parents could protect us, to some extent, by controlling our access—like keeping kids out of the deep end of the pool until they’re strong enough swimmers. But now, digital media and technology are everywhere; even Mount Everest has 3G phone service. Cell phones enable kids to jump on the Internet and go anywhere, from anywhere, at any time—often without their parents’ knowledge or supervision. Instead of staying in the safe end of the pool, children and teens today are swimming in a vast ocean of information and media impressions. Because we can’t always keep them out of dangerous waters, it’s more important than ever to give them the skills they need to navigate, play, and explore safely, and to stay afloat.
The risks of the new digital reality are related to a cluster of digital media issues that I call RAP—relationships, attention/addiction problems, and privacy. These three related concerns are having a fundamental effect on the nature of childhood and on all of us. We will explore these issues at length in the following chapters, but I will preview them here.
The new digital media is altering the basic ways we relate to one another as friends and family, transforming the experience of human connection. Technology is becoming the architect of a new intimacy.
Think about it. How often in the past week have you seen kids or adults walking around with their attention fixated on a cell phone, or sitting on a sofa with their eyes glued to a laptop, iPad, or TV screen? Focused on a device or a computer screen for seemingly hours on end, people can ignore meaningful personal connections and emotional cues. Parents often can drive kids crazy with their lack of genuine attention, and vice versa. I must admit that it sometimes happens in my own home. Leading child development experts such as Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, believe that digital media affects our ability to give full, undistracted attention to each other and our own thoughts. The lack of disconnected downtime in our tech-dominated lives is disrupting our ties to each other and adding significant emotional stress to the lives of millions of kids and adults.
We’re also witnessing the rise of new forms of damaging, destructive interpersonal behavior, like cyberbullying, that are facilitated by digital platforms. It’s a lot easier to say or do something truly hurtful to someone else, without considering the consequences, when it requires only a few keystrokes on a computer or cell phone.
Attention deficit issues are also becoming a huge concern for educators and psychologists. Many experts and parents worry that kids are becoming less able to focus well in the distracting world of digital media. Some believe these devices are creating a whole new generation of youngsters with more problems related to attention and concentration. Leading pediatricians, brain researchers, and child health experts, including Dr. Dimitri Christakis at the University of Washington, note that attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—characterized by abnormal levels of distractedness, impulsiveness, and overactivity—has become ten times more common in children in the past two to three decades, and they link this spike to the overstimulation of developing brains by digital media.
It’s distressing to see your kids try to focus on homework when they’re being pinged every few minutes by incoming texts, Facebook notifications, and instant messages. Even at a top-flight university like Stanford, I see the impact of this constant distraction in the classroom. During class, many of my students used to routinely check their e-mails and Facebook pages—until I banned the use of laptops during my lectures. Many of today’s students are less able to concentrate, write well, think coherently, and synthesize information than they were just a few years ago. And every year they seem to have shallower and shorter attention spans, as well as diminished memory capacity. The reason, according to David Meyer, psychology professor in the University of Michigan’s Cognition and Perception Program, is that multitasking causes a kind of “mental brownout.” The brain just doesn’t have enough processing power to do several things simultaneously, so the lights start dimming and performance suffers.
Digital media can also be addictive, and I’ve learned about that personally from my son Kirk. If we permitted it, Kirk would probably spend countless hours playing ultraviolent video games like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed—sitting like a brainless zombie in front of an Xbox, computer, or TV screen, blowing enemies’ heads off in brutal, bloody virtual worlds. And if he wasn’t doing that, he’d be happy to spend hours Facebooking his friends instead of getting together with them or going outside to play baseball or ride his bike in the neighborhood. Too often, I’ve had to stand right in front of him and block his view of a screen to get his attention.
I should add that Kirk, seventeen, is really smart and an accomplished athlete. But for Kirk, like many other kids, video games and social networks are more than a pastime. They’re a compulsion, a consuming adrenaline rush that can crowd out other aspects of a healthy life. They don’t just waste time, they steal it in large chunks—from homework, from being outside and physically active, and from communicating and interacting with friends and family in a meaningful way.
To deal with these worries, my wife, Liz, and I keep strict limits on Kirk’s gaming and his use of Facebook, cell phones, and other digital media. But it’s a constant battle, especially now that he’s an older teenager and more independent. Clearly, our family is not immune to these challenges, even though I spend my days trying to make video game manufacturers accountable for selling ultraviolent and hypersexualized games to kids and urging Facebook and other tech giants to act more responsibly when it comes to young people, especially regarding the increasingly serious issue of privacy.
Privacy, in particular, is a hugely important and explosive issue. Online interactions that kids think are just between good friends may very well be seen by many more people than they intend. And since kids don’t always think twice before they self-reveal, they often “overshare”—leaving embarrassing digital footprints that could someday damage their reputations. The consequences of this potentially fundamental shift in privacy norms during the past few years are difficult to overstate. As leading child development experts observe, what is intimacy without privacy? And what are the implications for healthy identity formation when so much is played out on a public technology platform where there are huge social pressures to project an idealized image? In this digital hall of mirrors, where every action or posting is designed to get a reaction, self-esteem, narcissism, anxiety, and authenticity are big issues for vulnerable preteens and teens. Without clear digital privacy boundaries, millions of kids and adults face a world where humiliating data and images persist forever, and there are no second chances to delete embarrassing mistakes. When you consider the very real threats of cyberbullying and sexting, it’s clear that all teens need to learn to self-reflect before they self-reveal.
Kids’ privacy is also being breached by advertisers and marketers, who now routinely target kids with unwanted ads and personal messages tailored to their online profiles. In addition, many sites like Foursquare or Loopt reveal kids’ exact geographical location—at stores or coffeeshops, for instance—without their clear knowledge or permission. As the parent of three teenagers, these geolocation services trouble me deeply; this isn’t a minor business practice that society should permit without robust public debate as well as new laws regulating privacy.
Unfortunately, in today’s Wild West digital media environment, our current privacy laws and regulatory oversight are totally out of date. The most recent privacy statute protecting children was written in 1998, the Middle Ages in the history of the Internet. The last time we seriously examined our nation’s privacy laws, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was still in grade school, and YouTube, text messaging, and Twitter didn’t exist. Today, in a world where people can post and say literally anything about themselves or others—often anonymously and in many cases without permission—our whole notion of privacy is being transformed, with significant, long-term consequences for the future.
As a society, we cannot mutely shrug our shoulders as Silicon Valley companies hurtle forward, introducing new privacy-threatening products for personal gain. With precious little analysis, let alone meaningful, rational discourse, self-anointed “tech gurus,” fixated on efficiently accumulating data, act as though long-held privacy norms are no longer relevant to the average person or family. “Just deal with it, dude,” seems to be their response.
The privacy genie may be out of the bottle in some respects, but the debate is just getting started, and the implications for kids are transformational. The stakes are too high, and the consequences too enormous, for Americans to continue to sit passively by. Privacy is a matter that affects all of us, especially children and teens, and we all need to get educated and involved in order to protect it.
In his seminal 1985 book about television, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the late media observer Neil Postman called childhood a “sequence of revealed secrets.” It used to be, kids were protected from information they weren’t ready to understand. That innocence was once considered priceless, an essential element of childhood and growing up. But today, when unfiltered messages bombard our kids from every angle—on Facebook, cell phones, games, advertisements, the Internet, TV, and movies—gate-keeping is difficult or nearly impossible, especially for older kids. Information simply outraces our ability to control it, and we’ve lost our ability to control our kids’ exposure to knowledge.
For parents and teachers, the easy, unfiltered access to information and images can be a shock. I met a father in Omaha who told me about an uncomfortable situation he’d recently had with his eleven-year-old daughter. He had asked her to look up some information for him on the Internet, but after a few minutes, she screamed, “Oh my God, Dad, look at this!” She had mistakenly clicked on a pornographic website and was staring at some bizarre sexual images and scenes he could never have imagined, even as a forty-year-old man. “What do you do when that happens?” he asked me. “How do you shield your child from too much information, way too soon?”
As parents, our instinct is to protect our kids and control their environment, but digital technology makes that almost impossible. That’s the reality. We can’t change it, and we can’t go back. But we can, and we must, help kids navigate this new environment safely so they don’t get lost or hurt. We have to teach them to understand the media messages they receive and how to use the technology platforms at their fingertips in responsible, productive ways. We can’t shield kids completely from all the images and messages that confront them, so it’s vital to give them the tools and values to help filter those messages successfully and to make good, common sense judgments. We can limit their access and exposure to traditional and digital media, especially when they’re young. We can help them process and understand media messages and content. And we can use media and technology in our homes and schools in positive ways that help kids make the most of the extraordinary creative and learning opportunities that technology makes possible.
Equally as important, we can and must join together as parents and citizens to discuss the broader implications of digital technology, instead of standing by as it transforms our lives. We must examine the impact that Facebook and other social network platforms have on how kids communicate and relate to each other. We must insist upon funding research on topics like addiction and ADHD, which are related to the constant use and overuse of digital media. And we must demand new privacy laws in this nation, so that we can restore the critically important concept of personal privacy in young people’s lives, as well as our own.
As media and technology evolve at a dizzying pace, they’re creating a host of new dangers and opportunities. As we discussed, digital technology threatens the quality of relationships, creates attention and addiction problems, and can invade our kids’ privacy. On the positive side, there are remarkable new opportunities for creativity, collaboration, and connectedness. Kids can literally access the world at their fingertips. For school, they can search and learn about virtually anything that fascinates them. A sixth-grader I know, for instance, taught himself how to play killer lead guitar by watching how-to videos on YouTube. And thanks to digital media, kids now have countless ways to share their talents and passions. The collaboration skills they pick up on social network sites, such as how to create communities of people with common interests, can also serve them well at every age, provided they use them wisely. And new technology is transforming education in positive ways—providing exciting, accessible ways to deliver and enhance educational content with photos, videos, and immersive technology. In one sense, there are more possibilities than ever for kids to learn, create, express, and interact. The opportunities for twenty-first-century education are breathtaking, and they represent a central focus of our work at Common Sense Media.
Kids haven’t changed. They’re still exploring and discovering who they are, just as we did when we were growing up. They’re still searching for acceptance and experimenting with risky behavior. What has changed is that there’s now a permanent record of their explorations, with implications that nobody can predict and that none of us can effectively control.
For parents, this new world can seem overwhelming. Many kids understand and use these new devices and platforms better than we do. Their technological abilities, however, frequently eclipse their emotional maturity and good judgment. Unrestricted access to information and people can result in age-inappropriate contact as well as totally inappropriate content. It’s our responsibility as parents to help our kids make good choices online. We can’t protect our kids from all the possible dangers, but we can help them grow up with the judgment and critical-thinking skills they need to protect themselves as responsible and safe digital citizens.
In our twenty-first-century economy, most parents realize that it’s now as important for their kids to know how to use digital media responsibly as it is to learn traditional skills like reading and writing. Research makes clear that most parents and educators see lots of positive benefits from the new technology. But just as kids need to learn how to swim, eat properly, and drive a car, they need to know how to live in the digital world safely and ethically. It’s still up to parents and teachers to guide kids—to teach them strong values and good judgment and how to make proper decisions. We all need to know the new “rules of the road” for the digital age.
Navigating these challenges can be scary, but that doesn’t mean we have to fear new media and technology, overreact, or forbid their use. What this new reality ultimately requires is simple common sense. To help, Common Sense Media and others have developed new curricula and tools for “Digital Literacy” and “Digital Citizenship” that can help every child learn how to be safe, smart, and responsible in the digital world. They are now available to every school and home in the United States.3
The bottom line is clear. We need to know what’s happening in our kids’ digital lives, talk with them about what they’re seeing and experiencing, and teach them to think critically about the images and messages they encounter. We need to limit their access to certain media and technology, starting when they’re very young. And we have to stay involved in how they process messages and images as they gain independence.
The good news is that this kind of parental involvement has a really positive effect. Research shows that it can make a huge difference in the amount of media that kids consume. That’s important, because studies have shown that kids who spend less time with media have far better grades in school and higher levels of personal contentment.
We know what parents and educators can do to help kids navigate new media safely. The tips in this book won’t guarantee that you’ll avoid issues and conflicts. My son Kirk, for instance, frequently reminds me that I’m his “worst nightmare” as a parent. But this book will give you practical, common sense tools for raising and educating your kids in the mobile, socially networked digital world.
You, of course, are the ultimate expert when it comes to your own children. Only you can make the judgment call about what’s right or age appropriate—when it’s okay for your child to e-mail, text, have a cell phone or a Facebook page, download a song with explicit lyrics, or see a PG-13 movie. But Talking Back to Facebook will hopefully help you think about the implications of the new technology and make those calls.
This book is divided into two sections. The first part will give you an overview of the issues related to digital media and kids and the background to understand what’s happening and why. The second part of the book gives you simple tips and guidance, for kids from birth through age fifteen, to help you and your family make good decisions about parenting and educating kids in a digital world. If you’re wondering if your two-year-old should play games on your iPad, or if you’ve just discovered that your eleven-year-old has been looking at X-rated websites, this book can help you keep your kid safe, secure, and ready to reap the powerful benefits of digital media. Perhaps most important, I also hope this book will help launch a national dialogue about what we as a society can do to minimize the perils and maximize the profound possibilities of this extraordinary new digital age.
Meet the Author
James P. Steyer has spent more than twenty years as one of the most respected experts and entrepreneurs on issues related to children's policy and media in the United States. As founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, he is responsible for the overall leadership of the nation's leading nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving the media lives of kids and families. Steyer began his career as an elementary school teacher and went on to become a nationally respected child advocate, public interest lawyer, and Stanford professor. Jim lives with his wife and four children in the Bay Area.
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Always glad to see a quality paperback offered on a new release book. I'm reading this as a secondary book, because it falls under the "parenting" category for me. The author is qualified to right this parenting book becaues he makes note of specific examples with his clan. Going to slowly read and see what I can put to good use regarding setting boundries for my son when it comes to the latest, greatest electronic devices. Take a quick look at the tables of contents to see if your children fall in his categories- chances are they do. Here's to raising the next generation in the most healthy way!