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“If you really want to know about business, you should refer to Scott Steinberg.” -Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group

Parenting High-Tech Kids: An Expert Guide

As a top parenting expert, keynote speaker, and consultant to the world’s biggest household brands, I’m often asked what parents and teachers need to know in order to help make technology safer for kids. Several other common questions also come up as part of our classes, courses, and training programs – points I thought it might be useful to address here. In hopes of answering educators’, families’ and policymakers’ most common queries, I’ve put together answers to some of the most common questions that we get below. It’s my hope that they’ll guide you, your family, and/or your students well going forward into the coming years – and help provide some useful expert hints, tips, and advice that will help you more positively integrate high-tech solutions into the classroom and home.

Q: As a parenting expert keynote speaker, how do you think technology changed parenting and teaching?

A: In virtually every way imaginable, given that technology has permeated nearly every facet of kids’ and adults’ everyday lives, from the personal to professional and social.

It’s hard for many to grasp, but today’s kids live in a world of on-demand mobile online access, 24/7 streaming media downloads and endless ways to connect and communicate: This introduces a vital and pressing need for education surrounding online safety, positive computing habits and digital citizenship from the earliest age. The fundamental problem: Fast as technology evolves, and as many new apps, gadgets and services as debut with each passing month, even today’s leading parenting experts and keynote speakers struggle to define rules of online etiquette, safety and behavior – and yet, as ever, adults are expected to lead by example. Likewise, little is being doing in schools to adequately equip children and grown-ups for the connected era. Nor, for that matter, do modern families have as many resources to turn to for help, including parents and teachers, since previous generations didn’t grow up with innovations like social media and online video streaming or emerging issues like cyber-bullying and cyber-baiting.

Essential to grasp if you want to successfully parent and teach in the digital age: The mandatory need for to educate oneself on technology, stay abreast of new advancements, and both encourage and maintain ongoing discussion surrounding Internet safety and healthy computing habits. And, of course, the fact is that the stakes have been upped considerably, as silly mistakes that children make can live on forever on the Internet for college recruiters and prospective employers to see. Keeping kids safe online requires that we reevaluate old approaches and reequip parents, teachers and kids with an entirely new set of skills to meet the challenges of the 21st century, which changes the very fabric of our culture. Plus, of course, demands that everyone – parents, kids, teachers, government, law enforcement, etc. – do their part to shoulder the weight of this responsibility, which must be shared by all parties involved.

Q: A wide range of products promise to help you monitor children’s use of mobile phones and the Internet. Where is the line between appropriate supervision and spying? Is there one?

A: The line is all too fine, and the decision to implement such solutions is often a point of much contention between parents and children. Realistically, only you can decide what’s appropriate here, though it’s often advised to openly discuss with children the presence of – and your decision to implement – such solutions. Know this, though: A truly determined tot will always find a way to circumvent such restrictions, whether through software workarounds or visiting a friends’ house.

The best defense here is a good offense: Teach kids positive computing habits, encourage them to come forward with questions surrounding negative situations or questionable content encountered online, and set a good example with your online behaviors. Build trust, foster communication and teach kids how to make good decisions and you’ll empower them to safely connect and interact. And know that – like any normal individual – they’ll sometimes mess up, and that, once breached, trust can take time to reestablish. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, despite safeguards and the best of intentions.

Q: How can teachers and parents best protect children from online threats while respecting their privacy?

A: Educate them regarding online safety, cybercrime, rules of online etiquette and behavior, information sharing, spending and other topics. Encourage open discussion about these subjects, and give kids the freedom to come forward and share their thoughts or any questions they might have. Discuss and agree upon house and classroom rules regarding appropriate content and the use of high-tech devices, and the punishments that will be enforced (and terms under which they’ll be rescinded) and take care to enforce them consistently. Take advantage of parental controls and software solutions. And beyond doing always doing your homework and researching and going hands-on with new technologies and products, set a positive example through your own words and actions. You don’t have to be a parenting expert to parent effectively in the high-tech age.

Q: Sites like Facebook and Twitter technically don’t allow users under the age of 13, but many tweens lie about their age in order to sign up anyway. As a parent, should you prevent your children from signing up for such sites, even if their friends are using them? If so, what are some alternative sites they can use?

A: Children and social networks are an interesting issue. Technically, terms prohibit access to those under age 13, and studies show that three in four kids who sign up can find themselves in unpleasant online situations. But plenty of positive experiences can be had on these sites as well and wonderful, healthy relationships formed, and many kids are mature and sensible enough to make use of them in marked and meaningful ways. There’s no single-shot answer here as a result. Every child develops and matures at a different rate, and every household deserves the right to make the decision as to when introducing social networks is appropriate. Alternatives like Google+ (which lets you limit content sharing to pre-approved circles), Everloop and Neer may present promising alternatives, however.

Q: What is the biggest mistake parents and teachers make when it comes to technology?

A: Ignoring it or blocking its use entirely. It’s a problem that won’t go away, and trying to halt the advance of progress is like trying to turn back the ocean’s tide with a shovel and bucket. The best way to make technology a healthy and positive part of family and school life is actually to embrace it, educate yourself about it and go hands-on with new devices, apps, social networks and services wherever possible. Not only does the practice allow you to make better, more informed decisions – it also provides shared activities and interests for adults and kids to bond over, and equips you to have the healthy, open and honest dialogue that’s vital to restoring peace to the household and classroom, and helping kids stay ahead of the curve.

Q: What are examples of safe, educational websites for children?

National Geographic’s website is a favorite, as are Disney and Nickelodeon’s. But oftentimes, visiting your local park or museum’s website can be highly rewarding as well. From games to activities (paper cutouts you can print, nature guides, stories, etc.), many offer a wealth of positive entertainment choices. Anything that offers educational value or encourages kids to learn about real-world subjects from math to science and nature is a plus.

Q: Should parents and teachers be worried that constant online multitasking — many times even among multiple screens — is hurting their children’s ability to concentrate?

A: Yes and no. Yes, in that it potentially could train them to consume media in a manner that’s less conducive to sustaining one’s attention span, and rewire the way in which we process information. No, as it also fosters creativity, problem-solving and dynamic decision-making – all qualities that can be of extreme benefit to children. Moderation in everything is key: Making sure that kids enjoy other, more attention-sustaining activities that they can actively put their minds to in addition to fly by the microsecond high-tech pastimes is crucial to maintaining balance here.

Q: Some Silicon Valley executives actually send their children to a school that bans technology. If the people who make technology are removing it from their children’s curriculum, should all parents consider limiting or eliminating children’s screen time?

A: Eliminating screen time entirely seems a bit extreme, but yes – limiting screen time is of course a good idea. The answer lies somewhere in the middle: Ultimately, parents can’t afford to ignore technology, but that doesn’t mean they have to let it rule kids’ lives either.

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