Parents and teens often feel at odds with one another’s daily lives. Parents want the best for their kids, but struggle to connect with them on a casual level, unable to understand the memes, trends, and social pressures that seem to rule their child’s life. In turn, teens thrive on this disconnect, using it as a way to forcefully differentiate themselves from their parents and causing them to see parental concern or desire for involvement as annoying or invasive.
Today’s teens–dubbed post-millennials–have no idea what it was like to live before the internet was not only accessible almost constantly, but expected to be this way. Many of their parents grew up familiar with technology, but still have difficulties accepting it as a perceived need and try hard to span the divide between them and their kids. They often feel that their children know more than they do about the internet, making it difficult to feel comfortable mentoring about good online safety habits and precautions.
Inspired by the upcoming STOP. THINK. CONNECT. #ChatSTC Twitter chat tomorrow (Aug. 17th, 3 pm EST), I decided to talk with our COO Sherra Schwartau to get the scoop on what it was like to raise two millennial kids from the beginning of the connected age and how she dealt with teaching them best cyber safety practices before it was even a thing.
What was it like to raise kids at the beginning of the digital age after having grown up in a different time? What were the differences in how they connected to the world versus how you did at their age?
Our oldest was born in the mid 80s. We had no cellphones, email, Google. We didn’t have screens everywhere. We relied upon TV and newspapers for our news. Magazines were something we savored from front to back. And being outdoors was simply the norm. We had no idea what we were headed into, really. Star Trek and Star Wars and sci-fi were glimpses of what our reality would become, but we could never have recognized the impact on our lives going forward. Computers were a novelty and not at all the standard, not part of your family or even part of life at work; it was only starting to become that. By the time our oldest was born, we knew maybe 3 people who had home computers. Fisher-Price made simple programs for toddlers, and our kids used keyboards to play them in our laps.
Winn was beginning to be concerned about the “internet superhighway for the world wide web” and for businesses who were starting to fill their offices with computers. But it was largely about the possibility of infowar and the harm that could come to organizations, not our kids.
Essentially, technology didn’t explode until our second child was a toddler so we weren’t faced with SCREENS everywhere like today. The pace of living was still a lot slower and less informed, though certainly not as seemingly “backward” as in my childhood of TV prime time and Saturday cartoons. Frankly I am relieved we didn’t have to think about internet safety and cellphones until our kids were old enough to understand the dangers lurking. Today’s toddlers see technology as the core of the household and daily life, so in addition to the safety precautions we are all taught concerning strangers, locking doors, fire hazards, crossing busy streets etc., these babies need to be taught to take the same types of safety measures online.
Of course, the world of “things” is also beyond our comprehension now. The safety lessons can never end! I feel like it must be harder than ever to relax as a parent.
What were some strategies for helping your kids enjoy technology, but in safe, responsible way?
Ha. Strategies. We totally learned as we went along. And just as parents today, we made mistakes, modified our plans and kept adjusting to the daily changes, it seemed. Our biggest difficulty was that we wanted them to have all that technology was bringing us, so we often slipped into the attitude of “gotta get it because it’s the latest and greatest.” Part of what we DID do, however, was encourage physical activity (not that we were super active) because it seemed that everybody’s kids played sports, gymnastics, martial arts, etc. And books. We loved books and wanted our kids to love books, too.
So I suppose that “redirecting” was the technique we used as much as anything. Honestly, it was tough not immersing ourselves in the tech revolution because we as adults were fascinated. And no doubt, we were pushing for more, bigger, faster, better. We couldn’t keep up with it nor could we plan ahead for the safety issues that began to emerge. Safe living now had a new facet: digital and ultimately mobile. I look back and wonder how we came through the teen years, especially with the added complications of the digital world.
We put the family computer in a public area so we could always see what was going on, though I know we didn’t monitor that closely at all times. The more tech we had integrated into our lives, the busier we all got. And kids could easily get lost in that life. That was the biggest challenge for sure. We had to constantly make sure we were keeping track of what they were doing while also doing our best to not become the parents who had to ask their kids how to do stuff with computers.
Did they ever run into negative or challenging situations online, such as stranger danger, exposure to violent content, or bullying? How did you both deal with it?
For the most part, we worried about child predators in the physical world and had no idea we were going to be battling them at every turn with the wonders of technology. When our kids were born, it was still okay to let them outside on their own to wander around with their friends. But in the later half of the 90s, parents stopped being able to do what they had done as kids with their own kids, never leaving any kids alone, always making sure they were supervised outside. I think that’s what made the appeal of home computers so great. We couldn’t let them outside any more on their own, but they could play on a computer. We never worried about it because they were generally just playing games, and not online.
But then our daughter got into a chat room and realized she shouldn’t be there. Fortunately, she came to her father and he was super supportive as they worked through what she had done wrong and what steps she should take going forward. I think that may have been the real wake up call for her. It was in late middle school so she was certainly old enough to “get it.”
Now we had to worry about the dangers of the digital world, too. We had to learn about the internet along with our kids because no one knew anything about it. Adults in general began to cultivate the attitude of, “if you don’t know how to do it, get a teenager to show you,” but that’s not really a good thing to allow with such powerful technology that has so many potential risks involved.
How did you create an environment where they felt safe and comfortable discussing any issues they were having online?
For us, we often told our own “truths” to our kids. Some of our foibles, carelessness, and flat out rule breaking incidents were shared often as examples of things one shouldn’t do, things we regretted doing or things that just showed we weren’t perfect. We always felt it was better to be honest in an attempt to get honesty from our kids. Did they keep secrets and lie to us about stuff? No doubt. But I believe they always knew they could come to us with the important questions and concerns.
In essence, being a digital age parent didn’t add anything new in this arena other than a new realm to keep track of and confront. Instead of only chatting and meeting people at school, church, ballgames, the malt shop, in a park or at a party, our kids had an additional “venue”: the world wide web. Granted, that new place was bigger than anyone knew, but short of unplugging, it was a place we were destined to never leave.
What was a moment of pride in relation to your kids’ online behavior?
Many people know the story of our youngest who laughed out loud and shared his “joy” with me one day about him logging into his friend’s email account. He had shoulder surfed and learned her password, and told me she was “stupid” for letting him do it.
Needless to say, we had major family discussions, trying to set some clearly defined rules and moral codes that would also include behavior within the newly developing digital lives were all starting to live. He did apologize to her, told her to set a new “secret” password, and my husband soon started his book about computer and internet ethics. I like to believe this was the beginning of our kids’ own internet moral decision making.
Any last thoughts?
I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a new parent within the last 10 years. How many kids have phones in elementary school?? We would never even have considered it as an option for either kid! But now it’s not even a question of whether someone can afford it, it’s all about the social, societal pressure to always be connected. The path to adulthood is often filled with mistakes–some more threatening than others–and now tech is just another domain parents must brave in order to help their children grow up successfully into mature adults. We’re no longer just raising good citizens; we’re raising good digital citizens.
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