Trying to Raise Techno-Responsible Kids: Story 1

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Digital Footprints Copyright 2013, Julia Hengstler
(Permission: image may be reused with attribution and a link to this page)

  I just read a piece where a parent was dumfounded by what kids post on Instagram. The author called for parents to check all their children’s Instagram accounts–those of their friends, etc. So many people get hung up on what people–including kids–are posting on Facebook, what they’re putting on Instagram, what they are putting here, there and everywhere, that they can’t see the forest for the trees. People are focusing on what users are doing with specific TOOLS. Kids–and adults–need general guidelines to help frame behaviours. Kids are literal—they grow into the ability to transfer knowledge and think abstractly. (That said, I know quite a few adults who are still pretty literal.) You give them a rule for one tool—and it’s just that, a rule for ONE tool. As adults, and for myself as an educator, I feel an obligation to think wider and deeper than the implications of behaviour with or in one tool. We, socially, and as individuals, need to take a step back from focusing on the tools and look at the behaviours we want to encourage. Some additional details may be needed for specific tools, but the bedrock needs to be a general guideline or value. Ultimately, I have no idea what tools my kids will be using in adulthood–so I need to try to prepare them in a way that deals with current technology and will accommodate future ones as well.

This is the first of what will likely be a few posts on what I actually do with my own kids when I’m wearing my tech-savvy parent hat. I hope it makes you think.

When My Kids Got Their iPods

The first thing I did before handing over the iPods was to tie them to my personal iTunes account. I consciously set it up so that I would manage and monitor their devices and approve any app purchases and installs. The boys were 6 and 8 at the time.  [I haven’t yet decided when I will let them do some downloading and managing on their own. I’m not there yet.]

I knew from all the social media training, research, writing that I do—images are powerful tools. That’s nothing new—“a picture says a thousand words”.  As soon as my kids got their first iPods with built-in cameras about a year and a half ago, we had a couple cardinal rules from the very beginning:

  1. no pictures of naked bodies or naked body parts EVER;
  2. no pictures of any other kid without permission from the kid’s parents.

These were rules writ LARGE.  I explained that we don’t want people doing things with our images without our permission and that there were bad people out there who could use our pictures to do bad things.

I added another rule after the first week or two, because the boys were getting app recommendations from friends for first person shooter games, gang themed apps, etc:

3) we don’t download apps to do things electronically that we would have issues with in  real life.

Under this rule, I’ve allowed my boys to virtually kill dinosaurs to protect villages, and mow down zombies to protect the living—but no hurting virtual humans.

The boys had been SOO excited to get these ipods. In the first couple of weeks, my younger son absolutely bombarded me with requests to download this or that app. I couldn’t take it, so I designated every Friday as “App Day”. (Since then, the novelty has worn off and I just take the requests as they come.) About 3 weeks after my boys got the iPods in their hot little hands, we were commuting on the ferry to school and work. As we were waiting to disembark in the car, my older son asks me if I would download an app his friend had called Office Jerk. (We had a later incident with another app recommendation from the same friend–for a later post). Not liking the implications of the title, I asked my older son to explain to me a bit more about the game. My projections from the title weren’t far off. Basically, you virtually bully a character in a virtual office. When my older son finished his explanation, this is how our conversation went:

  • Me: “Isn’t that bullying?’
  • Older Son: “Yes.”
  • Me: “Is it OK to bully people in real life?’
  • OS: “But it’s not real! It’s just a game.”
  • Me: “What’s our rule?”
  • OS: “No apps for stuff we wouldn’t really do in real life. [Pause…..] So is it ok that Younger Son took a picture of his penis and used it as an avatar on the Star Wars game?”

I was dumfounded. “WHAT????” my inner voice screamed for about 3 real seconds.I do this stuff for a living, and here my kid was doing exactly what I thought was a HUGE techno no-no. What kind of tech savvy parent was I? [Let me just note here, that the Star Wars app in question was NOT networked or multiplayer and only functioned on the device itself. Thank heavens!]

  • Me: “Give me the iPod, YS. Right now! I want to see that.”
  • YS: “I already deleted it.”

He handed it over and the picture was gone. I kid you not—mere SECONDS  had elapsed—and  my youngest ( a fairly sharp laddie) knowing I was about to blow a gasket, had deleted it. As if that would mitigate his situation….

  • Me: “What rule did you break?”
  • YS: “The one about no picture of naked body parts.”

There was no hesitation in his response–so it was obvious to me that he knew and remembered this rule quite clearly.

  • Me: “What were you thinking?
  • YS: “I don’t know…”
  • Me: “That’s it. You are not getting your iPod back for 6 months. This is major.”

I could not believe that MY son could do this: I mean I train adults and students on technology use all the time. It’s my job–did I already say that? You’d be amazed by how many more times I was to say that to myself.  I was literally side-swiped. (Just realized the pun in there when reading for errors!)

So, within weeks of getting the iPod—a device he’d been pleading for for months, of hounding me for the latest and greatest apps in the first 3 weeks of ownership—my youngest found himself cut-off from the coveted device. By the time school and work had ended, and I was back home, I did relent somewhat. In discussion with my husband, I reduced the banishment to 3 months. For 3 months that iPod sat in plain sight on the highest kitchen cabinet where YS could see it daily and repeatedly. Periodically, my younger son would look at the iPod high on the kitchen cabinet and say to me:

  • YS: “It’s been 3 months, right?”
  • Me: “No. It’s been 2 weeks.”

A week later,

  • YS: “Friend X said that it’s been 3 months now. Do I get my iPod back today?”
  • Me: “Friend X can say whatever he likes, you have almost X more weeks to go.”

This little dialogue was a refrain in our house for quite a while—with the calendar check-ins dropping off until we got closer to the actual device return date.

From the day it happened, I spoke about this incident with my friends, parents of my kids’ friends, and colleagues.  Every adult in YS’s circle knew why he had lost his iPod and that he’d lost it for 3 WHOLE MONTHS! OMG! OS learned his lesson by proxy—and I think quite a few other kids did too. My friend, Kelly, said, “Do you mind if I use you as a cautionary tale?” A colleague, Sally McLean, was doing some professional development about the time that this took place. When I told her what happened, she asked if she could use my story during her session. I spoke about what I had done during a radio talk show. The host accused me of being a bit hard on my son.

I was hard enough to ensure that my son has the basic concepts that will help him deal with the major and far reaching issue of sexting when it comes up in his pre-teen & teen years. I have taught him that I take certain technology rules very seriously. I have taught him that images are powerful things and that images–especially those of children–require special care and handling. When the whole Amanda Todd  story arose, and I explained the course of events as I understood them, I asked my boys what Amanda might have done to have changed her story. Both boys promptly answered that she shouldn’t have shown her breasts on the video chat when the stranger asked her to.

I can happily say that we’ve not had any more explicit picture incidents in the last couple years. We’ve had about 2 issues with taking pictures of other kids—even friends—small potatoes in comparison with the first big rule situation we had. I’ll post about how I handled those another day. I’m happy to say that I have seen YS at school picnics asking parents if he could take a picture of a friend–and asking the friend too.

Hope this helps you frame some responsible device use for your kids and students! Let me know what you think or what you do to help guide responsible device use.

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