Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology

Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology

Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology

Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology


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The Internet can be a scary, dangerous place especially for children. This book shows parents how to help digital kids navigate this environment.

Sexting, cyberbullying, revenge porn, online predators…all of these potential threats can tempt parents to snatch the smartphone or tablet out of their children’s hands. While avoidance might eliminate the dangers, that approach also means your child misses out on technology’s many benefits and opportunities.

In Raising Humans in a Digital World, digital literacy educator Diana Graber shows how children must learn to handle the digital space through:

  • developing social-emotional skills
  • balancing virtual and real life
  • building safe and healthy relationships
  • avoiding cyberbullies and online predators
  • protecting personal information
  • identifying and avoiding fake news and questionable content
  • becoming positive role models and leaders

Raising Humans in a Digital World is packed with at-home discussion topics and enjoyable activities that any busy family can slip into their daily routine.

Full of practical tips grounded in academic research and hands-on experience, today’s parents finally have what they’ve been waiting for—a guide to raising digital kids who will become the positive and successful leaders our world desperately needs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814439791
Publisher: AMACOM
Publication date: 01/15/2019
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 657,732
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Diana Graber, a Digital Literacy educator and advocate, was recently honored with the National Association for Media Literacy Education’s 2017 Media Literacy Teacher Award. She is the co-founder of Cyberwise, a leading online safety and digital literacy organization and the founder and creator of Cyber Civics, the popular and innovative middle school digital citizenship and literacy program currently being taught in schools in over 30 U.S. states, the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Africa.

Read an Excerpt


A Digital Journey Begins

What we may need most is an app that reminds parents that they need to ditch their own screens at home and spend real face time with their kids.


When a precious newborn enters this world, chances are a smartphone will be in the delivery room, to capture that first photo. That image may end up on Facebook or Instagram, or be sent via text to an aunt, uncle, or grandparent, who might share it on their social networks. Thus, that tiny infant has become a citizen of a digital world.

The work of helping that little digital citizen build a solid foundation that will stand up to the uncertain weather and shifting sands of the digital age starts early. Family and friends are constructing children's digital lives, and children have unprecedented access to mobile devices, at increasingly younger ages. In the United States, nearly all kids age eight and under (98 percent) live in a home with some type of mobile device, and close to half (42 percent) have their own tablet. Mobile device usage for children in this age range tripled between 2011 and 2017 — from only five minutes per day to forty-eight minutes per day — and one-third of their total screen time is spent using mobile devices. Even more striking is that 44 percent of children under the age of one use mobile devices every single day. By the age of two, that jumps to 77 percent.

You see the evidence of this everywhere you look — young children in cars, restaurants, and other public places with tiny heads bent over the glowing screen of a smartphone or tablet. There's even a name for this posture. Chiropractor Dean Fishman coined the term "text neck" in 2008, while examining a young patient who complained of headaches and neck pain. "Text neck" results from bending one's head over a mobile device. The gravitational pull on the head, which can weigh ten to twelve pounds, and the stress it places on the neck, can lead to incremental loss of the curve of the spine.

I see text-necking toddlers all the time. Recently, while riding my bike along the California coast on a dazzling winter morning, I counted five toddlers in strollers, all bent over an electronic device and completely oblivious to seagulls fighting noisily over a piece of trash, surfers surveying the growing swell, the bright red lifeguard truck passing by, and pelicans skimming low over the water's surface. Five kids missed all this and more because their attention was locked on their screens.


Mobile tools are excellent babysitters. They can soothe a fussy child or keep fidgety ones occupied, so a busy parent can make dinner, check email, or even go on a much-needed run. A 2014 study of children aged six months to four years in an urban, low-income, minority Philadelphia community revealed that almost all had access to devices that their parents used liberally as "babysitters" — when the parents did chores (70 percent), to keep kids calm in public (65 percent), during errands (58 percent), and at bedtime (28 percent). Parenting is relentless work, and for many, childcare is an unaffordable luxury. Besides, with over eighty thousand apps and games classified as "education- and learning-based," it stands to reason that these young kids might be learning something. The preschool/toddler category in Apple's App Store is its most popular, accounting for 72 percent of the top paid apps. What could possibly be the harm?

That's the thing. We don't know. After all, the iPad is not even ten years old; it's a babe in terms of scientific research. Even kids who used them as toddlers are barely young teens today, so definitive data on their impact upon youth is pending.

As a comprehensive literature review published by UNICEF in late 2017 puts it, "research in this area still suffers from theoretical and methodological weaknesses that makes the evidence collected so far unreliable and inconclusive." The long-term impact of the short-term phenomenon of tablets, smartphones, and all the other mobile devices that have popped up in the recent past is unknown. That makes children the guinea pigs of our grand experiment.

I asked Dr. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra about this. She is the founder and president of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, a nonprofit organization working to stimulate dialogue about the impact of digital media on toddlers, children, and adolescents. This national interdisciplinary research organization brings together experts in medicine, social science, neuroscience, education, and other fields to address three vital questions about children and technology:

1. How is technology enhancing or impairing children's ability to live happy, healthy, and productive lives?

2. How are years of electronically mediated interactions shaping children's physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development?

3. What should we do about it?

"Parents need to understand that this is all very new, and we don't have a lot of definitive studies yet," Hurst Della-Pietra told me. "Meanwhile, there has been a sea change in accessibility; now you can take these devices anywhere. While there are some amazing benefits — Skyping with loved ones, for example — there are risks, too, and we don't completely understand them. But we do know there are developmental milestones young children need to hit in order to reach their full potentialities."


Around the world, children and adolescents account for an estimated one in three internet users, yet the technology they use was not designed with their developmental needs in mind. While little is known about the long-term impact of today's devices upon a young child, a lot is known about healthy child development.

Babies require rich, multidimensional experiences in a real, three-dimensional world. They need opportunities for hands-on exploration and human interaction with loving adults. They thrive when they are read to, talked to, played with, and when they play with other children in real life. They benefit from being out in nature. A screen — regardless of whether it's a TV, tablet, smartphone, gaming console, computer, or even an internet-connected toy — can't deliver the same experiences as the real world.

A quick peek under the hood explains why infants need these real-world experiences. A newborn has trillions of brain cells, or neurons, waiting to be called into action. Each of these tiny brain cells has about 2,500 synapses — connections that pass signals between these neurons. When electrical signals pass between these neurons, these synapses are stimulated. Like footpaths linking remote villages, every time they get used, or stimulated, they improve, and the remote villages pop into life. Every experience a baby has, from birth on, stimulates these connections, and repeated experiences strengthen them, shaping the child's behavior for years to come.

Just as important as the real-life experiences young children have are the ones they don't have, as this influences brain development, too. Neurons that aren't used — or synaptic connections that aren't repeated — get pruned away, while remaining connections are strengthened. Stimulated synapses then get hardwired and form the permanent foundation upon which the child's future cognitive functions are built.

Although children's brains continue this hardwiring or "intricate tapestry of the mind" well into their mid-twenties, much of the critical work happens between birth and age three. This is an extremely sensitive development period, when children need specific experiences from their environment to properly stimulate their developing brains and lay the foundation for all of their future relationships — online and offline.


One specific type of stimulation babies need is a parent or caregiver's loving gaze. The absence of stimuli delivered through facial expressions and eye contact could lead to disastrous consequences. In The Cyber Effect, author and cyberpsychologist Dr. Mary Aiken writes, "Many experiments over the past century have shown the catastrophic effects of sensory and social deprivation during this critical period in early childhood, and the subsequent effects on later development."

What happens to an infant whose parents spend more time gazing lovingly at their smartphones than at them? Aiken suggests that, over time, these babies may be less able to interact face-to-face, less likely to form deep bonds, and less able to feel or give love.

Even though the middle-school students I teach are years removed from being infants, they continue to seem to crave a parent or caregiver's attentive gaze. They often complain how crappy it feels to be playing basketball or to be in the middle of a dance recital, only to look up and see a parent looking down at his or her phone. "It sucks," more than one preteen has told me. While this is sad, the thought of an infant not getting proper attention is even worse. The long-term implications of an entire generation of children not receiving the facetime they need from loving caregivers remains to be seen.

Screens also rob children of time spent talking, playing, interacting with parents and friends, engaging in creative activities, and so forth. Obviously, when they are looking at their phones or computers, parents talk and play less with their children. And if kids are on their own devices, which more seem to be, then they are not talking or engaging with their parents or with other kids.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician and mother of two small children, wanted to find out how common it was for adults to use mobile devices around children, so she conducted what has since become a widely cited study. She and her researchers surreptitiously watched fifty-five caregivers, usually a parent, with one or more children, in fast-food restaurants around the Boston area. Of the fifty-five adults they watched, forty used a mobile device during the meal. Sixteen used the mobile device throughout the entire meal. The researchers noted that the children, under ten years of age, bid for the phone-using adults' attention in escalating ways; while adults typically ignored the children's bids at first, they eventually responded in scolding tones, seeming insensitive to the children's needs. As of yet, no comprehensive study has measured the long-term impact on children who are ignored by caregivers whose absorption in their devices is so intense.

But consider the "still face experiment" conducted by developmental psychologist Dr. Edward Tronick in 1975, long before mobile devices distracted parents from their children. His experiment was simple: Mothers and their six-month-old infants were asked to engage in normal, animated play that included mirroring each other's facial expressions. Then the mothers were instructed to suddenly make their facial expressions completely "still" or expressionless for three minutes. At first, the babies anxiously tried to reconnect with their mothers, but if the mother remained still, the child showed ever-greater signs of confusion and distress before finally turning away, looking sad and hopeless.

This commonly replicated finding in developmental psychology demonstrated that infants find the lack of face-to-face contact more disturbing than other violations of normal social interactions. Even adults who get "still faced" by partners who turn to their phones instead of toward their bids for emotional connection find this distressing. Michele Weiner-Davis, of an organization called Divorce Busting, writes, "Every time you turn away from your spouse or he/she turns away from you, whether you show it or not, your response is not dissimilar to the baby."

In short, young children — and, as it turns out, married people — crave authentic human interaction. So if you or your young children are spending more time looking at gadgets than each other, critical neural pathways likely are not being properly stimulated, thus putting the development of important relationship-building human qualities at risk. As Aiken puts it:

A baby's needs are not high-tech ... technology has proven to be less than beneficial for [babies'] healthy development. So far, no electronic device or app can replace cuddling, talking, laughing, playing a silly game, holding hands, or reading a book with your child. I have no doubt that someday tech developers and designers will create apps that can truly enhance learning for infants and toddlers, and then the educational value of screens will change. Until then, what we need most is an app that reminds parents that they need to ditch their own screens at home and spend real facetime with their kids.


While handing a screen to a crying child might have immediate calming effects, for both you and the child, the long-term impact may be the opposite of what you bargained for.

Dr. Pamela Hurst Della-Pietra worries about mobile devices being used as "digital pacifiers," as she calls them. "When parents do this," she says, "babies and toddlers are not learning how to soothe themselves, and that is really, really important." She suggests giving children "activities that promote discovery and wonder. Traditional toys, such as blocks, have been time-tested, and we know have multiple benefits for young children. Giving children a chance to be bored isn't such a bad thing either."

Letting children experience boredom is becoming increasingly difficult in a digital world that competes mightily for their attention. After all, much of what children see and do on screens is exciting! Rapid scene changes and fantastical stories make real life appear dull and boring in comparison. The downside of capitulating to your children's requests for digital entertainment is that their ability to pay attention and focus may be adversely affected by overstimulation during important developmental windows, especially in early childhood.

In 2015, I attended one of Hurst-Della Pietra's gatherings of researchers and scientists at UC Irvine. During a compelling presentation about his research on technology's impact upon young children, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children's Hospital, shared this: The more TV a child watched between the ages of one and three, the greater likelihood that child would develop attention problems by age seven. For every hour of television watched per day, risk of attention problems increased by almost 10 percent. Conversely, the more cognitive stimulation a child received before the age of three (e.g., being read to or talked to by a caregiver), the less likely they were to have attention problems.

Sensitive young brains show immediate effects from overstimulation by television, too. Researchers from the University of Virginia discovered that preschoolers who watched just nine minutes of a fast-paced cartoon performed significantly worse on tasks that required attention than kids who spent twenty minutes drawing.

While both of these studies involved television and not today's interactive technologies, TV and video studies remain the best we have to go on when trying to figure out what new screens may be doing to young minds.


For children ages two and under, the effects of screens have been mostly negative, particularly regarding two important components of healthy development: language development and executive function.

Let's look at language development first. Numerous studies have demonstrated that videos and television are ineffective at helping children under age two gain these skills. One study of children between twelve and eighteen months set out to determine if they could learn twenty-five new words more effectively via a screen or interaction with a live human. One group watched DVDs containing the new words several times a week for four weeks; another group was introduced to the words by parents who used them in their everyday interactions. The result? The children who learned the most words were those who learned them from their parents. This study, and many others like it, demonstrate that the best way for a baby to learn to talk is through live interaction with human beings.


Excerpted from "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Diana Graber.
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword vii

Introduction: Left to Their Own Devices xi

Part 1 A Solid Foundation

Chapter 1 A Digital Journey Begins 3

Chapter 2 Learning to Be Human 23

Part 2 A Sturdy Structure

Chapter 3 Reputation 49

Chapter 4 Screen Time 69

Chapter 5 Relationships 95

Chapter 6 Privacy 125

Part 3 A Vibrant Community

Chapter 7 Thinking Critically 149

Chapter 8 Digital Leadership 167

Epilogue 181

Acknowledgments 185

Endnotes 187

Index 215

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